For most of the last two months of the NBA regular season, the Denver Nuggets seemed impermeable to bad news.
Leading scorer Ty Lawson goes down? Andre Miller takes over at the point. Miller is lost to one of the best bench units in the association? Twenty-year-old Evan Fournier steps into the rotation.
Second-leading scorer Danilo Gallinari goes down? Wilson Chandler steps into the starting lineup. Chandler is lost to one of the best bench units in the association? Young Anthony Randolph steps into the rotation.
Leading rebounder Kenneth Faried goes down? The ever-versatile Chandler moves from Gallo’s small forward spot to Manimal’s big forward spot and Fournier, who couldn’t find the floor a month ago, moves into the starting lineup.
Through it all, the ensemble kept winning — 13 out of 15 in March, seven of eight in April. The Nuggets were 24-4 after the All-Star break. Their 57 wins were the most since the franchise joined the NBA in 1976.
They remained impermeable Saturday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Warriors, but just barely. Miller’s game-winning layup with 1.3 seconds to play was a nice story. At 37, he said it was the first game-winning shot of his long career.
On the other hand, the fact that the ageless Miller had to bail out his team with an 18-point fourth quarter — the rest of the team scored eight — didn’t say much for anybody else. The Warriors’ starting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson outscored their Denver counterparts, Lawson and Fournier, 41-23, leaving the bench a lot to make up. Miller outscored the Golden State bench by himself.
The Nuggets’ finished the regular season third in the NBA in assists at 24.4 per game. They managed only 16 in their 97-95 Game 1 victory. Without that active passing game, they were forced to play one-on-one, which is not their strength. They shot .447 as a team after averaging .478 for the season. Lawson was 6-of-15, Chandler 5-of-16 and Corey Brewer 4-of-12.
“We didn’t shoot the ball with much confidence all night long,” coach George Karl acknowledged. “We won tonight basically because of Andre Miller and our defense . . . . It’s just the beginning. One win is a good start. I think Golden State has shown that they’re going to be able to play on the same level as us and we’re going to have to continue to get better and continue to find other ways to win games.”
One way would be to score more. The Nuggets led the league in scoring this season, averaging 106.1 points per game. They scored fewer than 100 only 19 times in 82 games. Yet the Warriors, who gave up an average of 100.2 points per game during the season, held them below 100 on Denver’s home court.
“I thought we had a very good performance of executing our game plan,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. “We made plays. We made shots. We defended. . . . Overall, we kept a body on them. We were physical. I thought at times we were a little bit careless. That’s to be expected with a young basketball team. But I’m proud of my guys. We put ourselves in position to win the ballgame; unfortunately, fell short.”
If you suspect that Curry will shoot closer to his season average — .451 — than his Game 1 average — .350 — going forward, the Nuggets will need to improve their own offensive efficiency.
The good news is the war of attrition seems to be turning in their favor. Warriors all-star forward David Lee tore a hip flexor in Game 1 and was lost for the remainder of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Lawson is back from a torn plantar fascia and Faried may be sufficiently recovered from a sprained ankle to play in Game 2 on Tuesday.
“The strength of our team is we find ways to win,” Karl said. “Anthony Randolph has helped us win games. Corey Brewer has been spectacular at the end of games, as our lead guy. Our big guys, you don’t know who’s going to perform at a high level. We don’t have one guy that wins it, but Andre was obviously the guy tonight.”
Miller’s shot chart was characteristically unbalanced. Of his 16 field goal attempts, not one came from left of the lane. Even on the final play, when he drove the paint, going left around Warriors rookie defensive specialist Draymond Green, he slipped back to his right to make the winning layup, avoiding center Andrew Bogut, who was a tad late coming to help.
“He’s a big-time defender and I’ve got a lot of confidence in him,” Jackson said of Green. “We’ve got a group of rookies that came in the day after the draft, drilled every single day, got prepared and understand how to be successful on this level. And Draymond Green is an elite defender. And I feel extremely comfortable putting him on anybody, one through five. Andre Miller made a heck of a play.”
Asked to compare the winner to previous big shots, Miller had a quick answer.
“Well, I never hit a game-winning shot,” he said. “Never. I’ve taken a couple and missed or turned the ball over, but that was big for a first playoff game.
“I was tired, actually. I think both teams were tired. Me and Ty was going back and forth on who was going to get the ball — you know, ‘You bring it, I bring it.’ He saw that I was in a rhythm and I was just like, just suck it up. I knew who to put in the pick and roll to get to my sweet spot and I just took the shots.”
But even Miller acknowledged that with Bogut guarding the rim behind a Warriors zone defense — Golden State outscored Denver by 10 points while the 7-footer was on the floor — the Nuggets’ offense was largely stymied.
“A lot of things went wrong,” Miller said. “They got into a zone, slowed us down, we started relying on jump shots. You’ve got a couple young guys out there that’s not out there much.”
Having clawed their way back into the game in the fourth quarter without Lee, the Warriors seemed to gain confidence in defeat. Sunday’s news that Lee is out for the duration may moderate that confidence, but the Warriors know they have a defensive game plan that worked in Game 1.
“We haven’t played ’em since January,” Curry said of the Nuggets. “Their style hadn’t really changed since then. We knew what to expect. It was going to be an uptempo game. That’s how we like to play as well, so we tried to implement our own strengths throughout the course of the game. Hard-fought all the way to the end. One big play by Andre Miller changed the game. So we feel good about where we are going into Game 2.”
All year, the debate around the Nuggets has been whether their high-flying, rim-rattling, star-starved ensemble concept could thrive in the postseason the way it did in the regular season. Conventional wisdom says no. Even with a legitimate star in Carmelo Anthony, their full court, uptempo style got them out of the first round only once.
But they were so good in the regular season this year that they improved their postseason odds, earning home court advantage in the first round over a team that won 10 fewer games over the course of the first 82. Anything seemed possible, including gathering confidence while making quick work of their first-round opponent and giving themselves a chance to compete with the best of the West.
All of that is still possible, but the Warriors served notice in Game 1 that their strategy is to turn the Nuggets into jump shooters. If they continue to succeed at that, it’s going to be a long series, because the Nuggets aren’t particularly good jump shooters.
If the Nuggets are to gain credibility as a contender, they will need to dominate the Lee-less Warriors in Game 2 and demonstrate that they have an answer to the strategy that largely baffled them in Game 1.