Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was playing to the three guys who will suit up as referees for Game 6 in Oakland on Thursday night. Otherwise, Mark Jackson’s whine about the dirty, dastardly Nuggets following the Warriors’ 107-100 loss in Game 5 sounded like the indignation of a schoolyard bully who finally got his.
For their part, the Nuggets should take it as a compliment. It’s the first time in history they’ve been mistaken for the Bad Boys.
“They were the more physical team,” Jackson said. “They were the aggressor. They hurt us in the first half scoring the basketball, points in the paint. Made us pay for our turnovers. They tried to send hit men on Steph. But give them credit. It wasn’t cocky basketball. They outplayed us. It wasn’t magic. They outplayed us.”
Uh, hold on, you sort of buried the lead there, Mark. Hit men?
“You know, some dirty plays early,” he said. “It’s playoff basketball. That’s all right. We own it. But make no mistake about it: We went up 3-1 playing hard, physical, clean basketball, not trying to hurt anybody.”
Self-righteousness has always been a Jackson trait , but this was a dizzying passive-aggressive two-step in which every allegation of malfeasance was accompanied by an assurance that it was fine; to be expected, in fact, in playoff basketball. Thus his assessment of Kenneth Faried’s performance:
“He set some great screens, and some great illegal ones, too. He did his job. Hey, I played with guys like that. You’re paid to do that. Dale Davis, Anthony Davis, Charles Oakley. You’re paid to do it. So give ’em credit. But, as an opposing coach, I see it, and I’m trying to protect my guys.”
It is not clear, exactly, how whining in public about one of the softer teams in the NBA protects his guys, unless it’s an attempt to influence the next officiating crew, in which case it might be delivered more effectively the day before Game 6 so it’s all over the media during the 24 hours those referees are in town preparing to do the game.
Jackson takes many things personally and this was one of them. That line about how the Nuggets’ win wasn’t magic? That had been simmering 48 hours. Nuggets coach George Karl used the word after Game 4 to describe the Warriors’ incredible shooting — .530 through the first four games, .576 in their three wins.
“The next 48 hours is going to be difficult, to say the least,” Karl said then. “They’ve found some magic and we got to somehow take it away from them.”
Apparently, this qualifies as disrespect these days. I don’t know who described the Warriors as “cocky,” but Jackson got back at him, too.
The Nuggets were by turns perplexed and amused.
“They play dirty every night,” said Faried, who was shoved to the floor beyond the baseline by Warriors center Andrew Bogut in perhaps the most replayed scene of the series so far. “And they target me. Every rebound, they try to hit me and try to hurt me. It’s basketball.”
Faried, like Steph Curry, the Warriors guard Jackson said was targeted by hit men, is recovering from a sprained ankle.
“I think I’ve taken the hardest hit throughout the series,” said Andre Iguodala, the star of the Nuggets’ Game 5 victory. “I think it was Game 1 or 2. Bogut leaned into me. Fullcourt screen. And I didn’t remember what happened the rest of the game. So I think they kind of brought the physicality to the series and we’ve just stopped being the receivers and we’re starting to hit back a little bit.”
The only specific play Jackson cited was a glancing collision between Faried and Curry at the free throw line that sent Curry sprawling. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell if Faried tripped him or gave him a little hip or knee check on the way by. Either way, it was a message that Curry no longer had a letter of transit through Denver’s defense.
This is pretty mild stuff by NBA playoff standards, as Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith confirmed in their conversation on TNT later that night. They agreed nothing particularly heinous had occurred in the Nuggets-Warriors game and that Jackson’s remarks were ill-advised. Then they showed video of truly dirty playoff fouls.
Jackson’s fusillade did manage to divert the Game 5 storyline from the fact that his marvelous shooters did, for one night anyway, lose their magic touch. The Warriors shot a rather mortal .432 and Curry, the star of the series so far, made just one of seven three-point attempts.
Superficially, at least, the difference was that Karl went back to a standard NBA lineup. He had abandoned it first when Faried sprained his ankle just before the end of the regular season and then because center Kosta Koufos was such a stiff in the first two games of the series, especially the second, when the Warriors became just the fourth visitor all season to win on Denver’s home floor.
After Jackson lost power forward David Lee to a torn hip flexor in Game 1, he moved small forward Harrison Barnes to power forward and added guard Jarrett Jack, making it a three-guard lineup. In Games 3 and 4, Karl followed suit, keeping small forward Wilson Chandler at power forward, a position he’d assumed during Faried’s absence. Faried moved from power forward to center and Koufos moved to the bench. With Faried still hampered by the ankle, this lineup was so small that it was obliterated on the boards, usually a Nuggets strength.
Jackson got a lot of credit for this tactical move, which was shrouded in a strangely transparent ruse. In each of the Warriors’ wins, he offered for pre-game introductions a lineup in which a traditional power forward, Carl Landry, was in Lee’s place. Then, when it was time to actually start the game, he deployed the one with Jack in Lee’s place and Landry on the bench. If Karl took offense as easily as Jackson does, he might have viewed this odd gamesmanship as an attempt to deceive him.
In any case, Karl went back to a standard lineup for Game 5, but substituted JaVale McGee, his erratic but athletically sensational backup center, for Koufos. The Nuggets led 36-22 after one and 66-46 at intermission.
When I asked Jackson about this tactical move, he declared it irrelevant.
“We lost the game because they scored in the paint, we turned the basketball over, they got it going in transition and we made mistakes,” he said. “No matter who’s on the floor, when we play our brand of basketball, we’ll be just fine. We put together a run with small guys on the floor, so it has nothing to do with size. We have to stay true to who we are.”
When Jackson went small in the second half, Karl matched up and the Nuggets’ big lead — 22 at its height — melted away. The Warriors got within five three times in the final minutes. I asked Karl why he thought that happened.
“We can go to switching more of their pick-and-rolls and play smaller or we can go bigger and try to rotate,” he said. “That’s a game-time decision for us most of the time. I think we actually slowed down more in the second half. We only scored 41 points in the second half. We somehow got to get enough energy on the court to keep the tempo and pace fast.”
As if anticipating Jackson’s allegations, which came minutes later, Karl closed his interview session with a joke, an unprompted rhetorical question:
“Did Draymond Green play football or basketball at Michigan State?”
Green is the Warriors’ 6-foot-7, 230-pound, rookie defensive specialist. He managed four personal fouls in 14 minutes of action.
The Nuggets desperately needed a big game from somebody other than Ty Lawson and they got it from Iguodala, who put up 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. The last Nugget to post 25 and 12 in a playoff game was LaPhonso Ellis. Throw in the assists and you have to go back to Fat Lever.
“Honestly, I didn’t really change anything from the last two or three games,” Iguodala said. “I felt like Game 2, the shot felt really well. Same with the two games in Oakland. I feel really good in that arena. So I didn’t change too much. I just tried to be a little more assertive once I got the ball because either I’m going to make a play for someone else or I can make a play for myself. So the guys relied on me to do that tonight.”
In fact, Iguodala has been shooting well in the series — he was at .512 from the field and .400 from long distance going into Game 5; those numbers are .534 and .429 now — but not to nearly as much effect. He was averaging 14.8 points a game before his 25-point explosion.
The Nuggets also got a big first half from Chandler, who struggled through the first four games, shooting .356. Chandler’s splits alone may account for the big first half lead and the disappearing second half lead. He had 16 before halftime, three after.
Still, the big story heading into Game 6 will be the allegations of dirty play, even if Jackson’s coach on the floor, Jack, didn’t seem to share the perception.
“It was good defense and we welcome good defense,” he said of the Nuggets. “It felt like good defense. We liked it. There is nothing further to it. We’re a close-knit bunch, a battle-tested bunch; nothing can get us out of our character. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Iguodala knew, and he was pretty sure it went both ways.
“Are the Warriors taking cheap shots?” he asked, repeating a question. “I think it’s just part of the big game of basketball. I’ve been hit a few times and I’ve wondered who it was or how they caught me. I had to go back on tape because I’ve been hit with some shots and it wasn’t a ghost hitting me.”