Last night the Golden State Warriors did what I predicted they would not be not be able to, and completed a first round upset of the Denver Nuggets. I thought I’d take a quick look at the series, why the Dubs were able to pull off the upset, and the prognosis for their next opponent, the San Antonio Spurs.
Here’s what I wrote in my NBA Playoff Preview a couple of weeks back: “Denver over Golden State 4-1: I really, really want to believe that the Dubs can test the Nuggets. But Denver has handled the GSWs fairly easily this year, the Dubs don’t have anyone who can check Lawson, and the Nuggets have a huge, huge homecourt advantage playing at altitude. As much as I’d like to see Steph Curry go nuclear, I think Iguodala will make life tough for him and Denver will win in five.”
So, where did I go wrong? Let me count the ways:
1) I misjudged the two teams’ respective homecourt advantages. I think this is understandable. Denver went a league-best 38-3 at home this year, while the Dubs were a solid but much more pedestrian 28-13. It turns out the homecourt advantage was different in the playoffs for two reasons: a) I think Denver benefits from the altitude of their homecourt more in the regular season, when they get the additional benefit of catching teams already tired from road trips and games on back-to-back nights. The effect isn’t as pronounced during the playoffs. Also, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing when a team shoots 65%, as the Dubs did in their game 2 road victory; and b) The Bay Area peeps who pack the “Roaracle” Arena during the regular season make for a good crowd, but during the playoffs, it becomes monstrous, the most intimidating environment for a road team in the entire NBA. Everyone knew that if the Dubs could steal a game in Denver and get back to a Game 6 in Oakland with a 3-2 lead, that Denver would be toast, much as Dallas was when Baron Davis and the We Believe Dubs stomped the Mavs in 2007. This is what came to pass.
2) I thought Denver’s defense, with all their long, quick defenders, would make life difficult for Curry. And they did at times, especially in the fourth quarter of game 6, but the Warriors were pretty good at working to get Steph open looks. Also, Denver didn’t always play their best defenders on Curry–he was being played straight-up by 37-year old Andre Miller when he went impossibly nuclear in the third quarter of game four, a five minute stretch that may or may not have made me question my sexuality:
I just went gay for Steph Curry
— Justin Goldman (@jgoldsbrooklyn) April 29, 2013
3) The injury luck fell on the Warriors’ side. Denver surely missed Danilo Gallinari’s shooting, and Kenneth “Manimal” Faried was limited for much of the series. Not that the Dubs were injury-free. Steph of course had the sprained ankle, but he didn’t miss significant time, and his game is more based on skill than raw athleticism, anyway.
What about David Lee, you ask? I’ll admit, I already thought the series was an uphill battle with Lee, who never played again after tearing his hip flexor in Game 1–outside of Mark Jackson’s silly one-minute attempt to channel Willis Reed last night–and when the Warriors lost the same game in which Lee got hurt on old man Miller’s last-second drive, I really thought the team was toast. It turned out, however, to lead to a strategic breakthrough: the Dubs spent much of the rest of the series playing a small lineup, with Harrison Barnes at power forward and Jarrett Jack sliding into the starting lineup, both changes which were unqualified successes. It was slightly reminiscent of Chris Bosh’s injury in last year’s playoffs leading to Miami figuring out how best to build its offense around LeBron James. The Dubs were able to use this lineup effectively for several reasons: because Barnes stepped up, because Denver was also inclined to go small thanks to Faried’s injury, and because…
4) The Dubs got unexpected performances from their two best players. In this series, Curry and Andrew Bogut became the fearsome inside/outside tandem that the team envisioned when it traded Monta Ellis for Bogut last year. The Dubs achieved most of their regular season success without Bogut, who missed more than half the team’s games while recovering from ankle surgery. Even when he played, his minutes and his athleticism were limited. I would have predicted the Dubs would win the series if I’d known they were getting this Bogut. He was extremely physical as a rebounder and defender throughout the series, he threw down a series of powerful dunks in game 4 to hype up the crowd, including an utter posterization of JaVale McGee. And in Game 6 he scored 14 points and grabbed 21 rebounds (!!) in 39 minutes (!!!)
And what more can you say about Curry? He’d shown flashes during the regular season, most famously dropping 54 on the Knicks at the Garden, and I think most of us hoped this was possible, but how do you predict the moment when a good player becomes a superstar? Grantland’s Brett Koremenos described Curry as a “seat belt factor” player–as in, when he got rolling, it was time to fasten your seat belt. Every time Curry hit a shot in this series, I buckled up, and I usually had good reason. He’s one of the most fascinating, entertaining, unique players in the NBA, and Dubs fans are lucky to have him.
Aside from dominating the games, Steph also took over Twitter. My favorite tweet was this graphic representation of Curry’s shooting range:
So, in their first playoff appearance since 2007, the Warriors were able to pull off a huge first round upset, much as B-Diddy, Captain Jack, and J-Rich did six years ago. Of course, the We Believe team lost its second round series to the Utah Jazz in five games. What’s the prognosis this time? Not a whole lot better. The Warriors face the ultra-experienced, ultra-professional San Antonio Spurs, a team that makes a habit of schooling young whippersnappers like these Dubs. The clownball Golden State engaged in when they almost gave away Game 6 in the fourth quarter will not fly against the Spurs.
Are there reasons for optimism? Yes. The teams split their season series 2-2, each winning both home games (although in the second Dubs win, the Spurs mostly played their scrubs). In Bogut, the Dubs have a player who can credibly defend Tim Duncan. And any team with a shooter like Spicy Curry has a chance.
But, again, the Spurs have a massive experience advantage, a lot of perimeter defenders to throw at Curry, and a borderline MVP candidate in Tony Parker (remember how Ty Lawson diced the Dubs defense? It’s gonna be worse with Parker). Also, the Warriors have not won a game in San Antonio since 1997. I am not making that up.
So, I feel like we’re headed for San Antonio over Golden State 4-1. Hopefully this works out the way it did the last time I made that prediction.