Mark Jackson had two days off to figure out what to do with the gaping hole in his roster. David Lee’s season-ending hip injury left Golden State without their starting power forward and left most casual observers and some very astute observers (Zach Lowe of Grantland among them) fearing that their chances for an upset had evaporated into the thin mountain air of Colorado after hearing the news.
The Warriors faithful, already crossing their fingers for a rare stretch of health from defensive monster Andrew Bogut, were now nervous. A return to the playoffs five years in the making and now this. It was assumed Carl Landry would attempt to fill the 4-spot for Lee. Though Landry doesn’t offer the versatility of Lee’s elbow game, he is a capable low-post scorer who was helpful in previous playoff performances for Houston and New Orleans.
Instead of making the safe choice, Jackson went with his gut, which told him to insert rookie Harrison Barnes into the starting lineup, and go small. Barnes’ open-court speed, his athleticism, and his slashing ability are all assets. Picked 7th overall in last year’s draft, Barnes’ jumper is anything but consistent.
This year, Barnes shot 36% from distance, but the results varied widely from month-to-month. On a team with two of the best shooters in the game, Barnes’ 3-pointer appeared woefully inconsistent. Basketball reference shows Barnes is a typical corner-3 specialist, who struggles from beyond 22 feet.
Maybe Jackson’s hunch was based on Barnes’ ability to keep pace with Denver’s furious tempo. Maybe he watched a loop of those two top-of-the-key treys in Game 1. Either way, Harrison Barnes rewarded Jackson and the Warriors with a scintillating 9 of 14 performance, knocking down 4 of 7 from distance and all three of his mid-range jumpers, en route to a 24-point outburst.
To focus only on Barnes, though, would overshadow what was a historic shooting night for the Golden State. Playoff teams do not shoot 55% from the field. They almost never hit the 60% mark. Last night, Golden State finished 51 of 79 from the field. 64.6%. You have to go back to 1991 to find a team shooting that well (Utah Jazz) in a playoff game. Denver came into the game on a 24-game home-winning streak. Like hitters at Coors Field, playing at the Pepsi Center is unique. When playing the fastest team in the league, that mile above sea level ain’t no fun. Denver’s athleticism and depth had been too much for 24-straight teams to handle.
From the opening tip, all five Warriors were on a mission. You want to run? Let’s run? We’re not worried about keeping pace with you, like every other team in the association. Nope. You see if you can keep pace with us. Ty Lawson was ready. One of the more electrifying little guys in the league, Lawson finished with 19 points, and 12 assists to only 1 turnover. The ageless wonder Andre Miller helped, collecting 18 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds in his typically efficient manner—a mere 9 field goal attempts. By the end of the first, Thompson was 5 of 6, Jack was 4 of 4, and even Bogut had made both of his attempts. It was Curry who came out of the gate slightly too amped up again, going 1 of 5 in the opening stanza.
However, in the final three frames “Swish, swish, swish,” was the loudest sound you heard at the Pepsi Center, as the dispirited Denver fans sat quietly watching the unbelievable ambush. Curry’s flurry started in the 2nd quarter. Steph hit 7 of 10, going for 15 points and 3 assists, as Golden State raced out to a 61-53 lead.
The 3rd quarter saw the Warriors nail 6 of 8 from distance, with Curry and Jack leading the charge. Thompson, Curry and Barnes combined for 10 of 12 shooting in the period. The Nuggets had zero answers. George Karl couldn’t find enough timeouts. A tidal wave of offense.
And then there was the “You’ve got to be f**king kidding me, moment!” Steph Curry’s ankles are the most discussed ankles in the Bay Area. And his left one turned on a random play late in the 3rd. With Curry trying to limp-walk-run it off, Warriors fans held their breath. For a few minutes, it looked like he might head back into the locker room. Instantly, the 13-point lead seemed tiny and the series seemed impossibly cruel. But Curry went back to the bench, tried to keep it loose with some rubber device for stretching and loosening the joint, and when he reappeared to start the 4th quarter, he swished his first three, and a collective sigh of relief was heard all across the Bay.
Curry and Thompson were buoyed by Jarrett Jack’s brilliant decision making in the open court. The relentless pressure that Jack and Curry kept Denver on their heels, unable to set the tone at any point after the first quarter. Though the Warriors have been dealt David Lee’s hip-injury, the Nuggets are clearly not the same team without their own power forward, Kenneth Faried. Or, without a healthy Faried. Faried missed the last several games of the regular season with his own ankle injury. Faried’s game is all about tenacity and energy. Without two healthy ankles, he’s not the same player. In 21 minutes, Faried was limited to only 2 rebounds, and was clearly functioning at about 70%.
Golden State finished with 131 points, but more impressively, they scored 35 points in each of the final three quarters. 105 points in 36 minutes of play. In the playoffs. Of course, this is a new era of the NBA, where teams are taking advantage of the pick-and-roll game, often discarding the low-post in favor of fluid offensive strategies that are enhanced by the rule changes of the last five years. Three-point shooting has never been better, in part because coaches are embracing the shot like never before, and in part because the most efficient shot in the game, the corner three-pointer, is a focal point of most offensive game-planning.
Shooting is often about confidence, and when players are unafraid to take the shot, they are sometimes able to find the rhythm that Steph Curry seems to have been born with. That uncanny ability to know the ball is going as soon as you see daylight and release it. Larry Bird had it. Ray Allen has it. Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant can find it. They call it the green light. And that light has never been more Golden than it was in Denver on Tuesday. Let’s hope it stays Golden over the weekend, back at Oracle.