The Golden State Warriors have gone from a presumed sweep victim to a majorly exciting squad on the brink of eliminating a favored opponent -- all thanks to the three-point shot.
When David Lee was lost for the postseason with a right hip flexor injury, there were few who weren't leaving the Warriors for dead. A team that lost Game 1, now losing their only All-Star? They'd be lucky to win a game against the Denver Nuggets, the No. 3 team in the Western Conference and a team that only lost three times in 41 home games.
It hasn't panned out that way. Stephen Curry is on supernova status, spotting up from anywhere he feels like and connecting. Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Jarrett have been red hot from beyond the arc, as well. Even Carl Landry, thrust into bigger minutes with Lee out, is averaging near 15 points per game, and Draymond Green, promoted from a deep bench role, has been productive.
It's been magical. Teams aren't supposed to play this well offensively for this long, and even the Nuggets, not a team that lacks for scoring, are scuffling and wheezing as they try to keep up with the prolonged barrage.
Game time/TV: 8 p.m. ET, TNT
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, Colo.
Odds: Denver opened as -7.5 favorites
Here are three points about Tuesday night's matchup:
1. Can anybody stop Stephen Curry? Is he a real human being?
Stephen Curry is just so damn unrealistically good at shooting basketballs at basketball hoops from long distances -- we're not really sure what to do with him at this point.
You knew something was up when he finished third in the league in three-point percentage ... while shooting 7.7 attempts per game from beyond the arc. Three-point specialists can approach 50 percent taking a couple of shots a game from downtown, camping out in the corners, waiting for pass and a split-second opening to shoot.
Curry's not like that. He's the team's primary ballhandler, not somebody passively hoping to get the ball for an open look. That means it's up to him to create his looks and decide when to pull up for a shot. And he's been pulling up for a lot of shots, and hitting them an alarming percentage of the time. Four threes in each of the first three games, six in Game 4. And those 18 threes only account for a little under half of his 27.3 points per game in the playoffs.
So here's the question: is Curry capable of an earth-bound performance? Mike Prada wrote a convincing post with photo evidence that Curry's great outing in Game 4 was due just as much to poor Denver defense as to the sharpshooters' long-range brilliance. The Nuggets need to stop helping off Curry, and they need to stop pretending Andre Miller has even a modicum of a chance of checking him defensively.
But even if they do play good defense, we'll have to wait and see whether it bothers Curry at all.
2. Can the Nuggets finally take advantage of the absence of David Lee?
This series was declared all but over when David Lee tore his right hip flexor in Game 1, ending his postseason. It was supposed to wreck Golden State's offense, one that often operated through the ambidextrous big man with a knack for passing. And despite riding 14 rebounds by Lee to a 55-45 advantage on the glass, the Warriors still lost on a last-second layup by Andre Miller. Surely losing the team's best rebounder would even up the boards battle and swing games in Denver's favor.
The Warriors appeared to concede the glass in order to run with a smaller group, starting with Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jarrett Jack, the team's three best shooters, while sliding Harrison Barnes, the team's fourth-best shooter, up to power forward. It's not a surprise that the increased minutes for shooters have paid off: They've increased their three-point-attempts per game to 23.3 while raising their percentage to 44.1. But it is a surprise that they've also been competent on the boards: Golden State has outrebounded Denver in two of three games.
Denver, an up-tempo team itself, doesn't have a true back-to-the-basket scorer capable of taking advantage of the size mismatches created by Golden State's smaller lineup. Big men Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Anthony Randolph are all guys who rely on their athleticism and length to make plays in transition, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov are more conventional centers, but Koufos hasn't been effective, and Mozgov hasn't played.
Denver's centers might not be able to get buckets, but at the very least, the Nuggets' bigger lineup should be able to leverage its size to win the game on the glass, creating extra possessions and preventing second chance opportunities.
3. Can Ty Lawson keep up his good play, but do it in a win?
Lost in Stephen Curry's offensive explosion is that Ty Lawson is an absolute star. He's averaging 23 points and eight assists on the series, with a 35-point, 10-assist outing in Game 3 the highlight. But it's been for naught: his poorest outing of the series, a 12-point, four-assist performance in Game 1, was the team's only win.
The Nuggets need Lawson. He's explosive off the bounce, and the Warriors don't really have a defender capable of stopping him. He needs to exploit that as much as he has in the first few games and hope the defense keeps Golden State from exploding again.