Over the last three games the Denver Nuggets have morphed into a team unrecognizable to those who followed them in the regular season. The team that won a franchise record 57 games — and tacked on a 15-game winning streak in the process — has disappeared before our eyes. Though it’s easy to become memorized by the demigod known as Stephen Curry, it’s worth noting that less than two weeks ago Denver was the team whom fans and annalists alike were salivating over — not Golden State.
Saying the Golden State Warriors are hot and there’s nothing anybody can do about it is lazy and incorrect. The Nuggets won 10 more games than the Warriors in the regular season. They defeated the Warriors 3-1 when they met throughout the course of the year. And three of those games came in the early part of the season when the Nuggets were struggling to stay above .500 and had 22 of their first 32 games on the road. Granted, the Warriors were a totally different team then too. They had a healthy David Lee.
Fastforward to the end of April. The Nuggets dropped only three games in a two-month span leading up to the playoffs. (To put things into perspective, the Nuggets have lost three games in a row since the playoffs started.) Meanwhile, the Warriors dropped 12 games in that same amount of time, including three of their last six. But somehow, someway, when the playoffs began the Warriors suddenly transformed into The Best Team Ever.
The problem? Average NBA teams don’t suddenly go all superhero on you just because they felt like it, just because they wanted to, because they secretly held that metamorphic power all along and were only waiting for the right time to unleash it. The Hulk doesn’t turn into the Hulk unless prompted. Superman doesn’t start sawing boulders in half with his eyes unless he has a damn good reason to. For most of their lives Superman and Hulk are nothing more than the mundane Clark Kent and Bruce Banner. And they’re perfectly content with that. But what you absolutely, positively must keep in mind at all times when in the presence of Clark Kent and Bruce Banner is that they’re still capable of doing incredible things — just like every NBA team (sans the Bobcats, maybe) and many players throughout the league.
For those with innate superhero powers (i.e. Steph Curry) the playoffs are a robbery, a kidnapping, an injustice which must be rectified. Their game will always climax when the season is on the line and the lights shine brightest. As an opponent your mindset should be to shut them down, but in reality your goal must be to mitigate what predetermined damage is bound to occur. That goal, however, cannot be compromised. When in a battle with a superhero what will ultimately get you killed is pushing their buttons. Or in NBA terms: letting them do what they want.
Through four games this series, George Karl has let Steph Curry and the rest of the Golden State Warriors do exactly what they want. The Warriors like to shoot, so Karl abides by designing a defense that provides them open shots. Mark Jackson likes to give fiery sermons, so George Karl counters by preaching calmly as if nothing is wrong when his team’s actually on the brink of a meltdown. Worst of all, Golden State has a player with superhero powers, and knowing this, Karl decides to do the last thing on earth you’re supposed to do when facing a superhero, which is give them a reason to transform. That reason is Andre Miller.
Steph Curry is dangerous for essentially two intrinsic reasons: (A) his quick release, and (B) his accuracy. If you give Steph Curry a smidgeon of daylight, he’s gonna make you pay. Knowing this, you’d think Karl would chose to guard Curry with one of his two best perimeter defenders, either Andre Iguodala or Corey Brewer. These players understand the nuances of defense and what it means to guard a jump shooter with proximity. Instead, Karl chose to guard Curry for large part of Game 4 with his worst individual defender (one of the worst in the league) who’s clueless about the value of spacing when defending a shooter with a quick release, as can be seen below.
1. The following screenshots unfold in a few seconds time. Curry dribbles up the floor with Miller guarding him, executes a simple crossover dribble and gets past Miller with minimum effort. By the time he reaches the top of the key (which is about 10 feet from when he started his crossover), Miller isn’t even close to being able to contest his shot. And once in the key, Curry draws the Nuggets help defenders his way which leaves other men wide open, whereupon he makes an easy pass to an open man for an uncontested shot or takes a fairly open shot himself. Easy as pie.
2. The following is virtually the exact same play as the one seen above. Curry starts off at the top of the arc with Miller guarding him one-on-one. There’s movement down below but nothing to impede on Curry’s sole focus, which is to take Miller to the rack. After a few dribble crossovers, Miller is spent. He then lazily shifts his feet straight forward, placing his body weight on his heels, which allows Curry to score a routine, uncontested teardrop in the lane.
3. For the third time in just a few minutes span in the third quarter, Curry yet again finds himself guarded one-on-one by Miller at the top of the arc. And for the third time, Curry routinely crosses over Miller, drives left and penetrates the lane with ease. This time Curry even marches all the way in for a scoop layup as his teammates have confused the Nuggets big men with trivial shuffling down below.
4. Of all the times Miller was schooled in the third quarter, this might be my favorite. Here we see Curry bring the ball up with three Nuggets defenders in front of him. Realizing he’s screwed, Miller raises his hand up and begs in a pantomime fashion for help from somebody, ANYBODY!!! With the baseline ripe for penetration, Curry fakes that way and instead hesitates with a behind-the-back dribble that nearly sends Miller into another dimension. By the time Miller is able to stand fully upright again Curry is already in shooting motion. And instead of at least getting a hand up, Miller puts both in his pockets, cocks his head back and waits for the sweet splash he’s become all too familiar with over the course of the season.
Throughout the game seven of Curry’s 10 field goals came by way of isolation. In only two of those instances was a pick even set and in those situations Curry didn’t use the pick to explode towards the basket or shake his defender for an open shot. In fact, he didn’t even use the pick at all. Instead, Curry dribbled until he was once again face to face with his defender, almost as if he preferred to humiliate them all by himself. And aside from two of those isolation baskets, all were defended by none other than matador maestro, Andre Miller.
Nuggets fans are in quite a state of disbelief right now. There looks to be no light at the end of the tunnel. They’re frustrated with George Karl, and rightly so. But this series is not over yet. Until the Warriors advance, the Nuggets will continue to remain the better team in the eyes of many. But if things are to change, it starts with George Karl. He did an incredible job of coaching this team to 57 wins and a three seed in the regular season; there’s absolutely no reason why he can’t turn this sinking ship around and dispel the stigmas about superstars and uptempo offenses he’s been talking about all year. But if he’s to find himself on the good side of history (instead of the bad, which is where he usually resides this time of year), then things have to change. Karl has to change. No more Andre Miller on Steph Curry. No more playing roulette with the lineup. No more lackadaisical defense. No more letting Golden State do exactly what they want!
As the great Jim Croce once said: You don’t tug on Superman’s cape.
If Karl tugs any harder, he’ll get what’s coming to him.
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