The Nuggets hadn’t lost a home game in over three months. They also hadn’t given up 130 points in a game all year. Both of those trends changed on Tuesday night when the Nuggets submitted one of their worst performances of the year. The fact it came in the playoffs was both surprising and somewhat predictable.
Usually after games we do Rapid Reactions. This gives us a good idea about which players performed well and which didn’t. That is unnecessary in this situation. Here’s what you need to know about player performances this game:
Iguodala came out hot then promptly fizzled off into no-man’s land offensively. He still had one of the better overall performances from any Nugget.
Ty Lawson had a good game. He finished with 19 and 12 and was really the only Nugget who played at a high level all game long.
Brewer, Chandler and Miller all finished in double digits but their impact on the game was hardly felt. None played particularly well.
Everyone else played bad, for the most part. Faried was a ghost. He was slow, lost, and ineffective in every way. Koufos could not defend anyone and had his worst game in a long series of bad games dating back to March. He finished with zero points and two rebounds in 14 minutes. Randolph provided a brief spark in the fourth quarter and McGee played only 14 minutes despite Koufos’ ineptitude. This was most likely due to the fact he couldn’t defend the pick-and-roll if his life depended on it.
As for the rest of the game, know this:
We haven’t seen a performance from the Nuggets this abysmal since they lost to the Hornets a little over a month ago by 26 points. But that wasn’t as bad as this game. It wasn’t the playoffs. It was on the road. And quite frankly, it just didn’t matter that much. This game was entirely different. This game was the playoffs. It was at home. And it mattered.
It’s difficult to quantify just how poorly the Nuggets played this evening. Looking at the box score will tell you a lot though. The Nuggets gave up 131 points in the playoffs — at home. At the beginning of the game guys were trying. But screen after screen, 3-pointer after 3-pointer, the Nuggets eventually broke. That was what this game was about: The Nuggets were not prepared to defend the Warriors the way they needed to be in order to win this series. And George Karl is largely to blame for that.
All season long we’ve given Karl one A grade after another in our Rapid Reactions. In Game 1 of the Warriors-Nuggets series Matt gave him another A. We’ve praised him for his coaching and even voted for him in our ESPN Coach of the Year ballots. Often, people say you can’t blame the coach for losing and not reward him for winning. In this case, it’s quite the opposite. Here are RMC, nobody is a sacred cow. We feel people should always be held accountable no matter who they are. Most importantly, we judge each game on an exclusive basis. Tuesday night against the Warriors, Karl was not an A coach. Here are some reasons why:
Defense. It did not exist. There was no structure, no communication, no strategy — at least none that was visible. In the beginning, players were being beat on an individual basis; the entire Warriors team was outplaying the Nuggets. But as the game progressed it became clear that Karl’s defensive scheme was not nearly as sophisticated as Jackson’s. After Karl’s players got beat, he decided to start switching, which was the lazy way out and only compounded the Nuggets problems more. Jackson, on the other hand, simply didn’t allow for his players to be beat. His guys — none of whom are considered elite defenders by any measure — moved their feet fast, dictated where they wanted the Nuggets to go and played with a higher level of defensive energy all night long. Every single player. Not just one. Everyone. If only several Nuggets players were being “out-defended” it would have been one thing, but everyone was being out-defended. Once that occurs, it’s no longer on the players; it’s on the coach. Players don’t get together at half and form a pact to not defend. It happens as a result of being ill-prepared for your opponent.
Picks. During a timeout TNT caught audio of Mark Jackson imploring his players to set hard picks. His players obeyed. The Warriors were in motion all night. Players were running across the court finding picks to utilize, setting picks for each other and completely dominating the Nuggets physically in the process. After 48 minutes of picks like those, I’d venture to say the Nuggets might have some sore shoulders tomorrow morning. During the game we saw Iguodala take a pick to the back (set by Bogut) that gave him whiplash and forced him to exit the game briefly. The Nuggets clearly were not ready for this type of physicality; nor were they ready for the implications that would follow in the form of 3-pointers galore. Below are several videos that will give you a good idea of what I’m talking about…
Pick-and-roll. This ties into the above bullet point. The Nuggets have struggled throughout the season with defending the pick-and-roll. The Warriors thrived off this elementary play the entire game. It seemed as though every offensive possession they had started with a strong pick-and-roll, then if they didn’t score immediately they’d present another series of firm picks that the Nuggets refused to fight through, which freed their shooters, who then converted from behind the 3-point line. This happened over and over the entire game. For some reason the Nuggets then decided to trap, but they did it passively which is basically committing defensive suicide as it repeatedly left a wide open man and forced the Nuggets to scramble to make up for their lost gamble. McGee was particularly bad in defending the pick-and-roll, as were nearly all of the Nuggets’ bigs.
Lane clogging. Mark Jackson knows who the Nuggets are and he’s not going to be beat by refusing to acknowledge it. He knows the Nuggets thrive in the paint, so he’s cutting it off by having his players sag into the middle once any Nugget attempts to drive. He doesn’t care about 3-point shooting, because he knows the Nuggets aren’t very good at it. He keeps Bogut within five feet of the rim at all times because he knows he’s an elite shot blocker and that none of the Nuggets big men can stretch the floor. All of these elements are giving him a huge advantage in the series thus far. The Warriors know who the Nuggets are and they know the Nuggets aren’t going to change their identity 83 games into the season. With a few minor adjustments, the Warriors have already put a restriction on how the Nuggets can succeed offensively.
And now it’s Karl’s turn. Karl has to match the chess moves made by Jackson. That’s what playoff coaching is all about: the ability to adapt. We know the Warriors will rely on setting a multitude of picks to free up their shooters, now Karl has to figure out a way to prevent those picks from having the effect they did in Game 2. This is going to require communication on defense, and more importantly, players who are willing to put in the effort on defense. Completely losing your man after the first pick you see in an offensive set isn’t going to cut it. Players will need to communicate with one another to let them know where the next pick is coming from and how they can position their body to prevent the pick from having its desired effect. Switching and trapping will not only require communication, but a maximum effort in order to be successful. These two tactics can only be employed if the Nuggets are committed to the defensive side of the ball. And in general, guys must be willing to move their feet faster, close out more quickly and put more pressure on the ball than their counterparts. This will then lead to more fastbreak opportunities (which the Nuggets are getting none of right now) and a better overall attack on offense — which at this point is stale as a 100-year-old box of Cracker Jacks.
People will likely overreact to this loss. They shouldn’t. The Nuggets have been a resilient team all year long. Theoretically they could bounce back and win the next three games and take this series in five. They certainly have the talent. And perhaps, this is why this loss surprised me. The Nuggets are a better team than the Warriors. They have more talent. They have a much better record. They usually play better defense. So it was a bit of a shock they played this way. But when you look back on the way the Nuggets have typically performed in the playoffs under George Karl, that’s when this loss becomes less surprising. Because the fact is, the Nuggets have not been a good playoff team over the last eight years with Karl at the helm. Just a fact; not an opinion.