Golden State-Denver has quickly turned into the best series in the playoffs. It's exciting, as most of the games have been down-to-the-wire. It's aesthetically pleasing, as there's running, gunning, and oodles of threes. And after Game 5, both teams are virulently angry at each other. Grab the popcorn, guys.
This started out looking like it should be gross. The Nuggets were favored, and after an Andre Miler game-winner -- it's still weird thinking about that Andre Miller game-winner -- we found out David Lee wouldn't be joining us for the rest of the series. Wrap it up.
But Stephen Curry and his teammates got hot. Like, incandescent, don't-leave-your-cassettes-in-the-tape-deck hot. They shot their way to one two-point win and two relative blowouts. And then, facing elimination, Denver switched it up on them, harassing Curry into a sub-par shooting night with defense Mark Jackson says was dirty.
Now we've got a war of words, and Denver will try to stave off elimination one more time -- and they'll have to do it in Oracle Arena, one of the loudest in the league when the fans are hyped. They'll assuredly be hyped Thursday night.
Game 6 is Thursday night at 10:30 p.m. Eastern on TNT -- here are three questions about how the game will unfold:
1. Will the Nuggets keep playing physical -- or, if you prefer, "dirty" -- defense on Stephen Curry?
As we already mentioned, Mark Jackson called the Nuggets dirty after Game 5, labeling their players "hitmen" in the way they defended Curry. Although the Nuggets downplayed the comments, SB Nation's Mike Prada went through the film, and found that Denver's defenders made a concerted effort to bog down Curry, an effort that was out of the ordinary, and an effort that may have sometimes targeted Curry's never-quite-healthy ankles.
As Denver Stiffs wrote, the strategy worked in getting Curry out of rhythm. After averaging 30 points a game in the Warriors' three straight wins, Curry shot just 7-for-19 in a loss, scoring only 15 points. While he'd drilled at least four threes in each of the first four games of the series, he went just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc in Game 5.
Any strategy that works that well should be continued. But the NBA presumably wasn't sleeping while Jackson was talking. They're aware of all the remarks, and it's likely that the three guys charged with refereeing Thursday night's game have been warned to make sure dirty play doesn't get too far. If the Nuggets try to get too rough with Curry, they could find themselves in foul trouble, and putting Curry at the line to shoot free throws is pretty much handing the opposing team two points, so they might have to back off their tough play if the refs are on top of it.
2. Can Denver win again with size?
Before Game 4, I asked why Denver hadn't yet taken advantage of the absence of David Lee. Golden State's frontcourt was considerably smaller than Denver's, yet the Warriors out-rebounded Golden State by healthy margins in three of the first four games of the series.
The Nuggets responded by adding JaVale McGee to the starting lineup, coupling the 7-footer with another up-tempo big in Kenneth Faried -- a lineup that started a center at power forward, as opposed to the Warriors' lineup, which has bumped Harrison Barnes up from small forward to power forward.
It worked: Faried was arguably the most important player, setting a physical tone of play with 13 points and 10 rebounds, McGee had 20 typically up-and-down minutes, but had 10 points and eight boards, while Kosta Koufos was decent off the bench, providing six points and five rebounds. Meanwhile, Andrew Bogut tweaked his ankle and couldn't play down the stretch. In his absence, Festus Ezeli was somewhat of a train wreck, setting illegal screens, missing important free throws, and sometimes looking lost on defense.
Bogut insists he's healthy, but he had also insisted he was healthy after Game 5, when Jackson was clearly wary to put him in the game. If Bogut's hobbled, Denver will need to dominate the battle of the bigs. If he's healthy, it will be enough to simply play evenly with a small Golden State group that had somehow managed to beat them in the glass consistently earlier in the series.
3. No, but seriously: Will Golden State continue to drill threes?
Sure, Stephen Curry went 1-for-7 from beyond the arc on Tuesday. But the Warriors only lost by seven because Jarrett Jack, Harrison Barnes, and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 10-for-22 from deep. Even late into a game where Golden State had buried them with the three, Denver still managed to routinely double incorrectly, rotate poorly, and generally leave guys who have torched them all series open.
Sure, deep shooting is Golden State's M.O., and with Lee out, they've catered their lineup towards spreading the floor and gunning. But regardless, Denver's three-point defense has been inexcusable, as Prada pointed out after a Game 4 when Curry went bonkers.
Golden State is fueled by the three and the Oracle Arena crowd. They'll definitely have one of the two in Game 6. It's up to Golden State's shooters and Curry, who as we already discussed, might be battling brutal defense, to provide the other.