There are two ways to look at the Nuggets’ current 1-1 series tie to the Golden State Warriors. The cheery narrative gives a convenient regular-season excuse for Denver’s familiar playoff woes – it’s only one game, blowouts happen, and losing home-court advantage while squeeking out a 1-1 split really isn’t that bad.
It’s too bad this isn’t the regular season anymore.
Behind closed doors, both teams are immersed in the hard data that belies the notion that this is a close series. It’s been a one-sided affair by almost any metric you want to use. If we are to judge Denver’s first two playoff games as a whole, then the fair conclusion is that Andre Miller’s heroics are the biggest reason this series is less one-sided that the numbers say it is.
Golden State has dominated the series offensively, relying heavily on a small lineup with Harrison Barnes at the four which Denver has yet to find an answer for. There is an element of overly hot shooting to the Warriors’ recent offense (74.3% eFG in game 2), but that offense has merely maintained the comfortable cushion they’ve had all series. Golden State’s defense and dominance of the paint is what got them there.
For the record, I think there is only so much Karl can do when the effort and individual focus of so many different guys comes into question. Playoff energy and effort should be a given at this point, and there’s no doubt Golden State is winning the battle of wills and are collectively playing with much more confidence than the Nuggets. But the fact they have done so shorthanded and on the road further proves Karl can’t continue to coach this series as he has, leaning on “trust” guys with the faith that home-court mojo and “teamness” will carry-them past mismatch problems on the perimeter.
Clearly we can’t look at the series like that anymore. Golden State has moved into the driver’s seat with home court advantage and the onus is on Denver to react to a small lineup that thoroughly exposed them on both ends. At this point, the margin for error has eroded and coaching adjustments need to become a reality for Denver to gain any momentum in this series.
Two playoff games is a large sample size and Denver is fighting losing battles on too many fronts. Here are a few of the most obvious adjustments we should expect to see addressed in game 3.
It’s already been reported that this one’s a given, and I’m not surprised. If Faried is going to have success in this series, his best shot is against Harrison Barnes in the starting five. He has not come off the bench since early in his rookie season and his energy in the starting lineup has been a huge part of the Nuggets’ identity all season.
If he can’t go he can’t go, but starting should be a given for Kenneth. It’s where he belongs and Denver has always had enough bench depth to protect themselves should he get off to a bad start.
Golden State owns the glass in this series, holding Denver to just a 15.5% offensive rebound rate. Denver led the league in that category with a 31.4% mark in the regular season. I am not thrilled about seeing Faried switched onto any of the four three-point shooters in Golden State’s new starting lineup, but Denver is stuck here. They have no choice but to live with him on Barnes and that means starting.
Don’t Start Andre Miller
This one was truly the hardest to understand. Karl “adjusted” to Mark Jackson’s now infamous small-ball with a second-half starting lineup of Lawson, Miller, Iguodala, Chandler, and Koufos. Golden State went on an immediate 10-1 run against this lineup to assert total control of the game.
This lineup, which Karl started in the second half, went 0-5 with 4 turnovers and allowed Golden State an offensive rating of 163.6 in game 2. It does not get any worse than that. That was just a five minute stint, but this was supposed to be the Nuggets’ big adjustment to get themselves going in the biggest game of the year. They had an entire halftime to gameplan and that’s what they came up with.
That is concerning. Defensively, that lineup doubly exposes the problem of dealing with the Warriors’ length. It’s bad enough to try and hide Lawson’s defense from the rangy backcourt of Curry and Thompson, but with Miller also out there you are essentially conceding open space to one of them. Denver tried to address this by putting Miller on Harrison Barnes but that didn’t work either, as Barnes exploded for 17 of his 24 points in the second half.
Mark Jackson’s gamble of starting his best lineup from game one and daring Karl to beat it the same way paid off. If Denver thinks they can play that game, they’ve already lost.
In many ways, Koufos’ plight mirrors that of the Denver Nuggets. He’s built himself a solid career with a workmanlike attitude and commitment to playing the right way. Then, we get to the playoffs where raw physicality and brute strength win out, and Koufos’ novel approach to big man play ends up looking like a useless gimmick.
I am not one for overreaction, but Koufos has been beyond terrible in this series. His game two performance should go down as one of the worst in Nuggets playoff history. In 14 minutes, he recorded only two rebounds and a steal. Both of those rebounds came off of errant airballs that were on their way out of bounds. That means Koufos’ effort failed to produce a single meaningful stat in the biggest game of his career. I do not believe that is something you can brush off as a bad game.
Koufos is expected to provide toughness down low, but he hasn’t looked fit to stand in the same gym as Andrew Bogut, who has hardly broken a sweat in 53 carefree, dominant minutes of this series. Bogut had a pretty poor game 2, getting whistled for some careless illegal screening and fumbling a number of easy passes that would have led to bunnies at the rim.
Even so, Koufos has been totally helpless to keep Bogut from dominating the paint on both ends. Offensively, he does not register on the Warriors’ radar and Bogut doesn’t even feign interest in guarding him outside the paint. Of course all of this is secondary to Koufos’ simple inability to put up any sort of fight against the Warriors in the paint. Koufos has played 40 minutes in this series and has more personal fouls than defensive rebounds.
In this series, he has no role against the physical Bogut or the “four-out” spread offense of Golden State. He has already failed to provide toughness and stability to the Nuggets defense and the simple fact is you can’t allow Bogut to keep seeing such a ridiculously easy matchup.
I strongly believe Koufos should not be the starter anymore and jump to the end of the line as another big body off the bench. It’s unfortunate, but the matchup demands adjustments and this is one the Nuggets simply can’t afford to ignore.