SAN FRANCISCO — Everybody loves The Beautiful Game. And boy are the Golden State Warriors good at it. When everything’s clicking and the ball’s moving faster than the speed of sound, it’s almost like the Golden State offense doesn’t consist of five different individuals, but rather one cohesive organism sharing a single mind, spirit and intuition.
Wednesday, however, was not one of those nights.
The energy seemed off from the jump in Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets, with the Chase Center fans a bit too placid for the players’ liking, being asked multiple times to increase the intensity of their cheering and affection. The three-guard lineup consisting of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole started for the first time, but didn’t exactly resemble the mythical three-headed beast, Cerberus, to which Nuggets coach Michael Malone compared it earlier in the series. Instead it felt more like a mildly intimidating, mangy stray dog you find creeping around the neighborhood.
The game was ugly, with seemingly more fouls committed in the first half than made shots. The Warriors offense, which had averaged a league-high 125.6 points per 100 possessions for the first four games of the series, appeared to be stuck in a fog worthy of its Bay Area roots.
“It’s been three years since we’ve been in the playoffs, and you kind of forget how difficult closeout games really are,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “To be honest, I think for three quarters it was like our guys — our main guys, Steph, Draymond, Klay — maybe they had forgotten a little bit just about how difficult it is to close out a series.”
In the end, however, the Warriors looked up at the scoreboard and found themselves advancing to the second round of the playoffs after 102-98 slugfest. It was the team’s first playoff series win since 2019, when Kevin Durant was still on the roster. For them to close out the Nuggets even when their offense wasn’t anywhere near its apex shows the type of versatility this team is going to need in the next series and beyond — if they get that far.
For the game, Thompson and Poole combined to shot 2-for-10 from the 3-point line. Curry was 2-for-6 from deep and 4-for-11 overall in the first half. For the Splash Brothers, including their newly appointed third sibling Poole, the nets remained largely arid for most of the night. If any team is going to succeed in the NBA playoffs, it needs to find ways to win when its stars struggle offensively. The Warriors were able to do that on Wednesday through more disciplined defense, timely contributions from role players and a spectacular closing performance from their superstar.
First the defense, which gifted the Nuggets 20 free throw attempts in the first half, compared to just seven for the Warriors. Nikola Jokic was simply outstanding, as usual, with 30 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists (Draymond Green told the reigning MVP, “thank you for making me better” after the game), but the foul parade wasn’t exclusive to him. Aaron Gordon shot eight free throws in the first half. Bones Hyland had four. The Warriors’ defensive game plan always starts with “defend without fouling,” and their failure in that department resulted in an eight-point Nuggets lead after three quarters.
That’s when things changed, however, as Green credited the coaching staff for implementing a box-and-one as the Warriors made their comeback in the final frame. Denver looked perplexed, and when the Warriors were able to get stops without fouling, they were off to the races with one of the deadliest transition offenses in the league. Golden State had also been getting hammered on the boards, and Thompson said that assistant coach Mike Brown challenged him to get involved on the glass. He finished with a team-high nine rebounds.
“I think we just communicated better. Our rotations were sharper. When our defense is locked in like that, our offense is easy,” Thompson said after the game. “It was definitely a big talking point in the huddle was to play great defense.”
The Warriors held the Nuggets to just six points in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter as they built a four-point lead with just over four minutes left. The ability to put the clamps on defensively helped save the Warriors on Wednesday, and it’s a calling card of virtually every true championship contender in NBA history. Golden State hadn’t really needed to do so through the first four games of the series because their offense was producing so well, but they certainly needed the defense to step up in order to close out the Nuggets in Game 5.
Besides Green, the defensive contributions of Gary Payton II were invaluable down the stretch. It’s why Kerr elected to stick with him as Poole remained on the bench with five fouls for most of the fourth quarter. But we all know about Payton defense — it’s become part of every opponent’s scouting report. What’s also usually on the scouting report is to sag off Payton when he’s behind the 3-point line, but he made the Nuggets pay on Wednesday by knocking down three of his four 3-point attempts, including a clutch one to extend the Warriors’ lead to five with just over a minute left.
“He doesn’t seem too fazed by anything. I guess when you’ve bounced around like he has — been in the G League, played on 10-day contracts, never really found a home — there’s a lot more pressure in that than there is playing in a high-stakes game,” Kerr said on Wednesday. “He’s found a home here. He’s always seemed comfortable on the floor, never seems overwhelmed.”
From there it was up to Curry, the team’s closer on a night where Thompson and Poole both struggled to knock down shots. Curry went 3 for 4 from 3-point range in the third quarter, which opened up lanes to the basket that he was more than willing to take. He didn’t make a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, but he went 5 for 6 from the free throw line and made two clutch layups in the final 1:33 of the game, the second of which essentially sealed the win.
“I think he’s a lot stronger. When he’s driving to the hole, what teams used to do was try to bump him off his path. You can’t move him anymore,” Green said of Curry after the game. “So once he gets his head down and he wants to get to the rim, he’s getting there.”
The game wasn’t pretty, but when it came down to crunch time, Curry took what the defense was giving him and found a way to help his team win. That’s what it takes to eliminate a team from the playoffs, and that’s what the Warriors will require as they continue their march toward the familiar ground of the NBA Finals. The next hurdle will be the winner of the first-round series between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves.
“Tonight was just a weird feeling because we hadn’t been there in a while, and we wanted it so bad. We kind of made it a lot more difficult on ourselves,” Curry said after the win. “But we still remember how to do it, which is a good feeling.”