Capitalizing on the many mistakes made by the Warriors down the stretch, the Nuggets put themselves in a position to win this game near the end. They closed the deficit to just two points with 32 seconds remaining after having trailed by as many as 18 earlier in the fourth quarter. But with poor offensive execution in those final seconds, punctuated with symbolic flair by a missed Andre Miller 3-pointer on their final possession, they ultimately fell short of a comeback, and fell to their ninth first round playoff exit in ten seasons, eight (or seven) under the tenure of George Karl.
There is a lot that could be said about this one game. But it was essentially a microcosm and extension of the entire series. The Nuggets were never able to establish the upper hand in exerting the hallmarks of their style of basketball: forcing turnovers, scoring in transition, and most especially racking up points in the paint. After averaging 19.8 fast break points and 57.5 paint points per game in the regular season, the Warriors held Denver to just 13.3 and 47.3, respectively.
It’s fair to say that everybody was surprised by the version of Andrew Bogut that showed up. Mobile, energetic and aggressive, he denied the Nuggets inside shots and, for the most part, dominated the glass. He played tough, and his inside presence more than compensated for the loss of David Lee (which in terms of the physicality of the playoffs, and how they specifically match up with Denver, may actually have been addition by subtraction for the Warriors).
But nobody was more unprepared for him than the Nuggets, who were caught totally off guard when Koufos and McGee seemed helpless against him early in the series, and Karl compounded the problem by starting Chandler at center in multiple games. With Bogut controlling the glass, the Nuggets struggled to create transition opportunities, and when they tried to attack the basket, he was usually there to block and alter shots, and essentially prevent any easy scoring.
By comparison, the Nuggets centers were more disappointing than not. Koufos basically withered and disappeared for much of the series, including tonight’s critical elimination game, in which he ended up accomplishing the improbable by having a +/- of -21 in 21 minutes in a 4-point loss. Aside from setting a couple nice screens for Lawson, he was practically worthless. He has now pretty much disappeared in every playoff series he’s played for the Nuggets, and one must wonder if he’s really built for the postseason.
McGee fared a little better over the series. He had bursts of energetic, game-changing play in some (but not all) of the games, and though he continued to be lost defensively much of the time when he got drawn out of the paint, he kept the “Shaqtin” fodder to a minimum. He had one of his better games tonight, where his assault on the offensive glass played a big part in the Nuggets establishing an early lead. All the potential is still there, but he still clearly has a long way to go with fundamentals like simply staying in position and blocking out (only 3 of his 10 rebounds were defensive – Iguodala, by comparison, had 7). Though he made big strides this season, he remains a work in progress.
But the Nuggets’ offensive shortcomings did not only result from transition and paint points. When Gallinari went down, one of the big questions was whether Chandler would be able to step up and fill the scoring void. And for a while through the last games of the regular season, he seemed to be rising to the occasion. Unfortunately, that pretty much all went out the window when the playoffs started. After going for a career high .556 TS% in the regular season, Chandler was held to .458 in this series, and his 3-point percentage dropped from .413 to .310. The Nuggets needed more from him, and he wasn’t able to deliver. In tonight’s game, he shot 5-17 (1-6 from the arc), and if he had come through as the offensive player some hoped he might be, Denver just might have survived this game.
The Nuggets’ inability to make their 3-point shots hurt them badly in this series (except in game 5, when they actually made a few) by concedeing a huge shot value advantage to Golden State, and by destroying their ability to space the floor and create paint points. And Chandler alone was not to blame. One might think that for a player who takes as many 3-pointers as Brewer does, he probably couln’t ball below his season percentage of .296. Yet he somehow managed to brick his way down to .250 this series (including 0-5 from the arc tonight). Lawson also plunged from a regular season .366 to a disastrous .190 against the Warriors. Somewhat surprisingly, the only player whose 3-point shooting actually improved was Iguodala, who jumped from a regular season percentage of .317 to .483 in this series.
Of course, with just six games we are dealing with a small sample size, but it’s enough to drive the point home that the Nuggets are badly missing a consistent, reliable perimeter shooter. It was rumored earlier this season that they are targeting Kyle Korver in free agency, and if they do succeed in landing him it should add a very much needed dimension to their offense (the fact that Gallo should return at some point during the 2013-14 season notwithstanding).
But enough about offense. The real story of this series was the complete and utter collapse of Denver’s defense. To a certain extent it is tempting to cut them some slack for this. Strictly in terms of matchups, of all seven opponents the Nuggets might have faced in the playoffs, the Warriors were probably the worst one, with Denver’s biggest defensive weakness and Golden State’s biggest offensive strength forming a perfect storm of raining 3-pointers. We saw Stephen Curry put in an amazing shoting performance of historical proportions that looked unstoppable by even the greatest NBA defense. And there was not only the unexpected emergence of super-Bogut, but also of rookies Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. Simply put, the Warriors turned out to be an offensive juggernaut on a scale nobody had quite imagined.
But there are no excuses in the playoffs, and both the players and Karl let the situation get more out of control than necessary.
If Masai Ujiri and the Nuggets front office take only one lesson away from this series, it will hopefully be this: George Karl and Andre Miller are bonded in an unholy alliance that needs to be broken up for the good of all parties involved. When Miller’s on offense, the fast pace Denver needs to play at screeches to a grinding halt, he dribbles away the shot clock usually looking first for his own shot off a post-up, and all the other players stand around. It’s a bad flashback back to the Allen Iverson days (though Miller operates at a slower speed).
But when he’s on defense. Oh, when he’s on defense. Pretty much, the whole system breaks down. There’s not much need for me to rehash here what Matt already broke down (here) and Kalen expanded on (here) in great detail. But everything we at RMC have been saying for a long time about Miller’s defense was exacerbated by orders of magnitude in this series. His hero ball worked to get the Nuggets a win in Game 1 (and then never again after that), giving Karl cover – though he might not need or want it anyhow – to play Miller for too many minutes, play him alongside Lawson too much (an open invitation to Curry and Thompson to fire away like they’re in the 3-point contest), and leave him late in the games on critical defensive possessions. Karl clearly – though to many of us inexplicably – has an infatuation with Miller that goes well beyond any good, rational basketball sense or logic.
Ujiri and Kroenke do not deem yet another first round departure sufficient cause for Karl’s teermination (though many Nuggets fans certainly will). If that’s the case, then we can only hope they’ll understand the importance of trading Miller this offseason in order to discard its weakest defensive link, and prevent Karl from overusing him in the future. At his best, Miller brings some crafty post work and ball distribution. And he has won the Nuggets some games when he’s been on. But in the bigger picture he’s a greater liability than asset, and he’s just not a good fit with the Nuggets as currently constructed.
But not all of Denver’s defensive woes can be blamed on Miller. As Matt wrote about in his Game 6 preview (here), Faried struggled to guard Barnes on the perimeter. As mentioned above, the centers struggled to contain Bogut.
Brewer was a disappointment defensively through much of the series. He usually gambles too much, but he went way overboard with taking too many risks, leaving shooters open, having to play catch-up and go for reach-in fouls (something which got him into early foul trouble tonight). Prior to this series I was somewhat firmly in the “Denver should bring back Brewer” camp. He did a great job early in the season of helping keep the team afloat when Gallo and Ty were slumping, he’s a hard worker and he’s a great person. But at the very least, I’d be looking to lower the price tag on a re-signing if I were Ujiri.
It also must be acknowledged that Lawson, too, was one of the weakest defensive links in this series. Despite some big successes on the offensive end, Lawson ended up after Koufos (-0.43) with the second lowest +/- per minute (-0.22). Even granted that +/- is an imperfect stat, and is dependent on which players someone is sharing the floor with (when Iguodala was resting on the bench, usually Miller was in alongside Lawson for the double whammy), that’s an extremely poor number, and it’s there above all because Lawson got torched at the arc.
But this is where it comes back to Karl’s blind Miller love. And being that both Kalen and Charlie have posts on Karl in the works, I’m going to make just one simple point here: Players like Lawson and Faried are flawed defensively. Thatt’s in part inevitable (Lawson’s height) and in part something they need to work on (Faried’s awareness). But despite that, they’re also incredibly important to the success of the team. They need to be in the game, and given that’s the case, their defensive vulnerabilities need to be masked by the players around them.
In my opinion, the biggest coaching failure by Karl in this series was not trusting Evan Fournier with the larger role he’d proven worthy of late in the regular season. Not only is Fournier a much better fit with Denver’s offense, given his speed, slashing abilities and the fact he doesn’t stop the ball, he’s also a far better defender than Miller. It’s impossible to know if, had Karl trusted his rookie as Mark Jackson did his (which paid off bigtime for him), it would have changed the series enough to alter the outcome of at least one Nuggets loss. But the fact that we didn’t even get to see him try it at poisnt of games when Miller was clearly struggling is, to me, a fairly unforgivable offense.
This game, this series, this season – all we are left with now are the implications they all have for how the Nuggets will approach this offseason and their longer-term future. We’ll see how events unfold in upcoming weeks, and whether this failure (and it is a failure) will negatively impact Denver’s chances of retaining Iguodala or signing free agents. The “Fire George Karl” debate will indubitably rage on. And Ujiri and Kroenke will have to survey a large array of tough choices, more than they probably thought they would have just two weeks ago.
This season was one hell of a ride, and as disappointing as its closure has been, there is a lot to be hopeful about for the future. I for one remain (until given good reason to doubt him) in the “In Ujiri We Trust” camp, and here’s to hoping he’ll use Denver’s flexibility and deep trove of assets to assemble a team that will reach greater heights next season.
And as always, thanks so much for reading, and stay tuned to Roundball Mining Company for furtheer analysis of this playoff series, where things stand now, and where the Nuggets go from here.