Last night was bad. Let’s get that out of the way.
The Nuggets gave up 131 points, at home, in a playoff game en route to their first loss at home since January. Golden State deserves credit — they were on fire from everywhere. They shot 64.6 percent from the floor and 56 percent from three, prompting head coach Mark Jackson to say that the Curry-Thompson backcourt is the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the NBA. Jackson was over-exaggerating but last night they actually looked like the two best shooters in NBA history.
The Nuggets were lost defensively. Andre Iguodala looked fantastic in the first quarter but disappeared into the abyss the rest of the game. Kenneth Faried looked slow and, well, injured. Corey Brewer took more 3-point shots than Steph Curry did, which just seems inconceivable. Kosta Koufos got bullied by Andrew Bogut and had to be subbed out. Anthony Randolph tried and brought some energy in the fourth quarter but was exposed on the perimeter defensively. I hardly remember Evan Fournier playing other than some early turnovers. The only guy to really bring it was Ty Lawson, who finished with 19 points and 12 assists.
But here’s the good news for Nugget fans: it’s a seven game series. And the Warriors aren’t hitting 64.6 percent of their shots regardless of how open they are. With that said, though: this series could go downhill for the Nuggets if head coach George Karl doesn’t make some adjustments defensively and to his rotation.
“So what adjustments could be made?” — Ahh, I’m glad you asked.
The small ball lineup
About 30 minutes before tipoff, a report came out that Carl Landry would start in David Lee’s place. Landry made sense as he is a natural four and would allow for a smooth transition for the Warriors without their All-Star power forward. But at tip-off coach Jackson sent out a small-ball set with Harrison Barnes at the power forward, Klay Thompson at the 3, Steph Curry at the 2 and Jarrett Jack running point. While this didn’t really hurt the Nuggets at first, because they started Wilson Chandler as their small-ball power forward, it affected the game in the long run once substitutions were made.
There’s two trains of thought here: 1) adapt to the Warriors style and beat them at it or 2) use your seven footers to punish the Warriors on the defensive end. For periods at a time last night, the Nuggets tried strategy #2 and failed miserably. When fatigue would set in and the Warriors would concede to a more natural lineup, Denver would be fine. But when Barnes played the 4, he would have an advantage stretching the floor on offense that was enough to allow him to stay in despite his rebounding woes on the other end. Barnes finished with 24 points on 14 shots and really became the x-factor for what the Warriors wanted to do on offense.
Coach Jackson made moves last night. His savvy rotations on offense and “score-outside-to-open-up-the-inside” strategy outclassed coach Karl in every sense. Coach Karl must figure out, which I’m sure he will, how to match up with the Warriors defensively.
I’m not sure Karl can afford to have two big guys on the floor for the rest of the series. Some combination of Lawson-Miller-Fournier-Brewer-Iggy-Chandler must fill the first four positions at all times — with Faried, McGee, Koufos and Randolph rotating at the five spot. That is, of course, until the Warriors are forced (by fatigue) to play a more conventional lineup away from their small ball starting lineup of Game 2. In that case, the Nuggets could match up accordingly with two bigs in the game at the same time.
Wait, did Denver even play pick-and-roll defense last night? Well, they tried… sort of. Almost every time down the floor the Warriors would set a strong sick pick with shooters running off a series of screens on the baseline. If the ball handler on the ball screen didn’t have an opportunity to score, he would look for the shooter who was either flaring or curling off the opposite down screen. This type of action can be tough to guard as the Warriors ran the floor with four shooters and stretched the Nuggets defense, leading to easy buckets inside once the Nuggets over committed.
How do you go about fixing this? Well you can have your bigs on defense hedge the ball screen hard, which I don’t recall ever seeing in Game 2. Nate Timmons of DenverStiffs has an excellent video series for Game 2. In the second video at the :15 mark you can see Klay Thompson dribbling around a Bogut screen at the top of the key. Iguodala tries to fight over the screen but eventually gives up and goes under. Koufos sits back, allowing an open jumper which Thompson (and Curry) was knocking down all night.
If I’m coach Karl, I would want my on ball defender to jump over the screen and fight over the top. While that’s happening, the big man guarding the screener would need to come out hard and attack the ball handler. Where you get burnt in this defense is on the weak side when the big man rolls to the basket. That’s where your weak side defenders have to be conscious enough to clog the lane then have the speed to recover to their man in the corner. The Nuggets have that type of team speed but I’m not sure everyone could be disciplined enough to implement this strategy in the short span between Game 2 and Game 3.
Either way, Karl has to address these defensive issues because the Warriors were getting wide open three after wide open three in the half court set.
The Steph Curry problem
I don’t know that you can really fix this. Steph Curry is one of the most effortless scorers in the game and stopping him consists of the basketball Gods plucking their hands in and pulling shots off the rim. Because when he’s doing this, no defense in the world is going to stop him. Last night, there was no stopping Curry. If you let him breathe, he’s hitting a pull up jumper in your face. If you smother him, he uses his (underrated) handle and finds the open man, which he did 13 times last night.
So what do you do?
Well, for one, you hope he has one of those rare “off” nights like he had in Game 1. For two, well… there’s really not much else you can do. You can face guard him completely, every inch of the floor, but that only opens up space for the three other 3-point shooters on the perimeter. I think it’s best for Nugget fans to just pray. Pray for the basketball Gods to decide they’ve had enough of Curry nailing every shot he throws up.
There’s no reason to panic or overreact if you’re a Nugget fan. George Karl is a great coach. He got out-coached by Mark Jackson last night, but that happens. Just like great players like Steph Curry can have off games — coaches can have off games too. And what do great coaches do in the playoffs? They make adjustments. Karl will make adjustments. The Warriors won’t shoot 64.6 percent from the floor again. The Nuggets are a better team than the Warriors. They’re resilient. And they will be fine.
Thanks for reading and follow me on Twitter @lashy.