In Mark Jackson’s brain, there was a certain intrigue to the starting lineups for Game 2 of the Nuggets-Warriors playoff series Tuesday night.
Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets’ power forward who missed Game 1 with a sprained ankle, was cleared to return, but his coach, George Karl, told reporters he would bring him off the bench rather than return him immediately to the starting lineup.
Karl tends to be more transparent about such things than some coaches because he figures his opponent will know soon enough anyway. If he says he’s not starting Faried and then he does, it would be a simple matter for Jackson to alter his own lineup in response, or to substitute early if he felt the matchups were going against him.
But Jackson, in his first playoff series as a head coach, thought Karl, an old hand, might be trying to snooker him. Knowing the visiting team’s lineup would be introduced first, he sent out a group that included Carl Landry at power forward, replacing the injured David Lee. Landry would be a suitable matchup for Faried.
When the Nuggets did what Karl said he would do, starting Wilson Chandler in Faried’s big forward spot, Jackson called Landry back and replaced him with guard Jarrett Jack, giving the Warriors a smaller, three-guard lineup.
Why didn’t Landry actually take the floor after being introduced with the starters?
“I’m not really sure,” Jackson said. “He may have had to go to the bathroom or something.”
So Jackson didn’t change his mind between introductions and tipoff?
“No,” he said. “Just covering all the bases.”
In other words, if Faried was in the Nuggets’ lineup, Jackson had Landry ready to match up. If he wasn’t, Jackson would make a last-minute switch. The decision had actually been made earlier in the day.
“I came to my coaches early this morning,” Jackson recounted. “I said, ‘Am I crazy to start Harrison (Barnes) at the four (big forward)? I mean, somebody talk me out of it.’ They all just smiled and they co-signed it. And I knew it was the right thing.”
If Karl or any member of his staff was surprised by the last-minute change, it didn’t show. The effect of Jackson’s decision was to go small against a small Nuggets lineup that also featured three guards — Ty Lawson, Evan Fournier and Andre Iguodala. The Nuggets held their own early, winning the first quarter 28-26. It was their only competitive episode of the evening.
“Did it throw us off?” Karl asked, repeating the question. “I mean, we play small as much as any team. The first quarter, we actually had somewhat control of what was going on. So we kind of knew what was going on.”
Whatever happened after that, it should have been accompanied by alcoholic beverages of some kind. The Nuggets saved their biggest stinker of the six-month season — a 131-117 blowout that was even worse than it sounds — for the first round of the playoffs. It’s like an allergy or something.
The game takes its place in the Nuggets’ book of dubious records. It was not only the most points scored against the Nuggets this season, it was the most scored against them in a playoff game in 23 years. It was the most scored against anybody in a playoff game in 18 years.
The Warriors’ 14 three-pointers were a new record for a Denver playoff opponent. The Nuggets collected a total of 26 rebounds, their most meager postseason total ever. Faried, the rebounding Manimal, had two in 21 minutes.
You get the idea. The Warriors made nearly two of every three shots, an astounding shooting percentage of .646. It’s been 22 years since anybody had a bigger number in the playoffs.
When I asked Karl if it was his team’s worst defensive performance of the season, he didn’t argue.
“I would think so,” he said glumly. “I can’t recall another one. We didn’t do very much of anything very well. Pick and rolls, give up the paint, three ball, transition.
“We let their shooters get into the game, and the frustration of covering shooters making shots broke down our team concepts some. Our shot selection offensively broke down and that gave them the fast break a lot of times. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a game where a team got three 35-point quarters, maybe in my career. I don’t remember that.”
After that first quarter, the Warriors’ shots rained down from everywhere and everyone. Jack hit 10 of 15, Barnes nine of 14, Klay Thompson eight of 11 and Steph Curry 13 of 23. Success energized the Warriors. Failure drained the Nuggets. The Warriors moved the ball until the Nuggets quit chasing it, then made the open shots.
Iguodala had the hot hand for the Nuggets early, hitting five of six first-quarter shots, including two three-pointers, and doing his part to fire up the full house as he ran back up the court. He got only five more attempts the rest of the game, and he didn’t seem that happy about it.
“We have so many guys who are attacking,” he said. “We’ve got to stick with some things that if they’re working, we’ve got to continue to go with it. But they went zone in the second half and kind of threw us out of our rhythm a little bit. And it kind of takes away from one guy being able to attack.”
Chandler, in particular, suffered in Golden State’s switch at big forward to Barnes from the injured Lee.
“We matched up better on defense,” Curry said. “Wilson had a huge game last game. D. Lee did a great job guarding him, but when you have Harrison able to defend him, that’s a better matchup for us.”
Chandler took one more shot than Barnes and scored 10 fewer points. Matched up against another natural small forward, he lost the quickness advantage he has against bigger, slower power forwards.
“Harrison Barnes, for a rookie, hasn’t been getting the respect that he deserves,” Jackson said. “A rookie that starts for a No. 6 seed all year long, defends, doesn’t kill you with numbers but does everything the right way.”
Barnes said Jackson didn’t tell him he was going to play big forward until he was about to walk out on the court for the opening tip.
“I think Carl even came out in the starting lineup when they announced it,” Curry said. “So I think Jack knew right before the game started that that was what we were going to do. He was ready for it. We had that lineup a lot during games, but just a different look to start with it. But defensively I think it helped us to start the game that way.”
Having removed the Nuggets’ matchup advantage, the Warriors proved better, for one night anyway, at pretty much every position. Curry put up a dazzling line of 30 points, 13 assists, five rebounds, three steals and one turnover. Thompson scored 21 points on only 11 shots. He took six threes and made five.
“We’ve got guys that can knock down shots,” Jackson said. “When you talk about Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, in my opinion they’re the greatest shooting backcourt in the history of the game. And I’m a guy that’s just not throwing that out there. I followed basketball my entire life. Not only played, covered it, but I was a fan as a kid. I watched the great players. And these two guys are absolutely off the charts. I would have put Reggie Miller and myself in there, but I held him down.”
So the Nuggets got smoked. What do they do now? Games 3 and 4 are in Oakland this weekend. New schemes? New lineups? Try harder?
“We’re going to have to play harder,” Karl said. “There’s no question that to win in Golden State is going to take much more energy than we’ve put into these two games. I’m not saying we didn’t try hard. We played hard. But we didn’t play hard enough. They played harder than we did.
“They made shots, they get cocky, they get enthusiastic, they get into it. They were urgent and desperate. I can’t say that we didn’t play hard, we just didn’t play playoff hard. A little bit, I think they were more physical than we were. Their big guys hit us more than we probably banged them. The momentum and pendulum of urgency and desperation comes on our side in Golden State when we get there.”
Speaking of big guys, if anybody has seen center Kosta Koufos, please alert local authorities. Somehow, the Warriors managed to outscore the Nuggets by 18 points in the 14 minutes he spent on the floor. Might this be an opportune time to start JaVale McGee? Or does Faried, who was ineffective off the bench, return to the starting lineup?
“I’ll evaluate everything,” Karl said. “We will evaluate everything. And we will try to make the adjustments that put the best team out there for more minutes than we did tonight, and that won’t be that difficult.”
Each playoff game is its own story, and one doesn’t necessarily influence the next. But the Warriors were the more aggressive, skilled team in the first two games of the series. Only Andre Miller’s miraculous 18-point fourth quarter in Game 1 prevented the visitors from winning both.
“This series is far from over,” Jackson said. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for them and they’re more than capable of coming into Oracle (Arena) and beating us. So we’ve got to relax, and then we’ve got to get back to work.”
The Warriors are much better outside shooters, so the Nuggets have to do what they did all season, which is get to the rim. But they aren’t rebounding, the catalyst for the fast break, and the Warriors are frustrating penetration by turning to a zone defense at times that turns the Nuggets into jump shooters or turnover machines.
Curry has been better than Lawson. Thompson has been more efficient than Iguodala. Barnes outplayed Chandler in Game 2. And Koufos vs. Andrew Bogut has been no contest.
“This process has just begun,” Karl said. “We’ve beaten this team four out of six games. Someone’s always said the series doesn’t begin until someone wins on the other team’s court. Now the series in a lot of ways, the process has begun.”
Well, if we’re in a battle of cliches, the pressure is on the Nuggets now. They do not look like the team that finished the regular season on a 24-4 roll. Their 24-game home winning streak is over. Now we find out if they know how to counterpunch.