OAKLAND, Calif. -- The unique, thrilling, 2012-13 Denver Nuggets experiment is dead after a 92-88 Game 6 first-round playoff defeat to the Golden State Warriors. The game was put out of reach in the third and early fourth quarter, until Denver nearly pulled off an incredible salvage of an incredible season.
It turns out that 57 regular-season wins are no guarantee of playoff success, not after Denver lost Danilo Gallinari, not after the loss of David Lee forced Golden State to spread the floor and attack the biggest Nuggets weakness.
George Karl's Nuggets gave up the second-most 3-pointers in the regular season and Golden State shot the best regular-season 3-point percentage. Lee's hip flexor injury forced the Warriors to go smaller with Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green often manning the power forward spots, often stretching a shaky Nuggets perimeter defense until it broke.
On Thursday night, though, the Nuggets were stingy -- on point with their closeouts, apt to remember assignments. And yet, it all got away from them when Stephen Curry had yet another solar flare third quarter. The Warriors' ascendent star blasted Denver for 14 points and three assists, while dropping four 3-pointers in the stanza.
"I'd like to check his stats because it seems like every third quarter he seems to get loose on us," a gravel-voiced Karl said after the game. Karl added later that "their three-ball got loose and we couldn't make a shot," as a summary for what went wrong.
That summary could be applied to why this Denver team was, perhaps, doomed from the outset. It's a poor-shooting outfit that allows opposing shooters to "get loose." They were liable to meet the wrong match in these playoffs, and it just so happened to be in Round 1.
But, before that final buzzer sounded, the Nuggets treated us to a glimpse into what made this team so compelling this season. Down 18, a frenetic series of traps and blitzes squeezed the Warriors into a near-loss.
Andre Iguodala described it this way: "I felt like we converted on some turnovers, we kind of sped them up, made them turn the ball over a little bit."
They "sped" the Warriors up. The gnashing, powder-blue sea of arms and legs seemed to shift time and space for Golden State. Somehow, at the end, in a fit of desperation, the Nuggets enveloped Oracle in that thin Colorado air.
"We just didn't give up," Iguodala explained. He is still convinced that this experiment could have worked, replying "definitely" when asked if this team could win a championship.
Andre Miller was less positive, in general. When asked what he thought the younger players learned from this series, Miller responded, "Nothing. Nothing." Later, he was one of the few to indirectly call Karl's contribution into question by explaining, "We got outplayed, we got outcoached."
For the superstar-free Denver experiment to work, they'll need to find better shooters, better defensive talent, and yes, better execution. The frenetic style that defines them can also betray a troublesome lack of offensive structure. The flying press that spurred the fourth-quarter surge can reflect a similarly freestyle approach on defense.
The Denver problem is as much about finding structure as it is finding that elusive superstar. The Nuggets are young; for all we know that superstar is in their midst. Curry wasn't described as such before this series, specifically. We don't yet know what Ty Lawson will grow into, or what Kenneth Faried will become.
Faried himself had a fireball of an 11-point, 11-rebound performance, and Lawson had one of his few down games (17 points and 6 assists) in a series where he's largely been Denver's offensive engine. Even amid disappointment, the two showed flashes of how the Nuggets can eventually overcome.
Changes need to be made. As well as the Warriors played at times, this won't do for the future. When Karl took responsibility with "That's on me," he may well be right.
Or, Lawson could be right with his "He did everything he could, man" appraisal of Karl. Lawson also laid out a rosy picture of the future: "We're young. Everyone's getting better. I think everybody can add something to their game next year, and grow up a little more and we'll be all right."
For "all right" to happen, someone like Lawson needs to make a Curry-like progression, or somebody like George Karl needs to organize this better.