DENVER -- In losing to the Denver Nuggets 112-110 on Wednesday night, the Golden State Warriors came just short of compensating for the absence of Draymond Green's intelligent ferocity. With Green resting his tired legs, the Warriors were outplayed for the vast majority -- that is, till they were nearly saved by Stephen Curry channeling the supernatural. At the end, Curry did all he could to right the wrongs of three quarters, and in the end, he came a play away from creating a memory that might have rivaled playoff moments.
The Warriors' only two losses coming into this game were decisive, without much room for second-guessing. Not so Wednesday, when a decision here or there could have changed it all. Still, interim coach Luke Walton had the accurate summary for what happened: “We didn’t play hard enough and we didn’t play smart enough.”
It began awkwardly, with Golden State starting Jason Thompson for Green at power forward. While that move didn’t bring disastrous results, it set the tone for a team scuffling around the court, deprived of the space and organizing force Green usually provides. If the Warriors were gasping for air, a constricted offense was as likely a culprit as the altitude.
Though the starting lineup was less than ideal, it wasn’t all that plagued Golden State. Curry was off for much of this game, throwing the ball away and shooting 6-of-18 through 3½ quarters. He missed some shots he usually makes, a couple lefty layups Curry said he “tricked off,” but also struggled to get clean looks without Green’s help as a secondary playmaker.
Just when it seemed Curry would be unrecognizable in Green’s absence, the point guard morphed into an unstoppable force. Within a span of six minutes, before his turnover with 10 seconds remaining, Curry scored 20 points on 7-of-7 shooting.
The last shot in this sequence of brilliance was a 33-foot strike, tossed off the top of the Pepsi Center’s mountain logo, with 37 seconds remaining. It was a reminder that Curry can reach new heights, even when he’s at a summit. The Warriors had played horribly, ceding open shots down the stretch and continuously fouling Denver's Danilo Gallinari, who shot 19 free throws. Still, Curry can be a deus ex machina in these situations, suddenly warping logic and physics to create a win.
Curry had succeeded so massively in giving the Warriors a chance that it might have influenced him toward squandering that chance. When Andre Iguodala recovered Gallinari’s layup with 14 seconds remaining, he looked for Curry even though three Warriors were on the other side of the floor. Curry received the ball, with Gallinari guarding him and two other Nuggets staring at the Golden State superstar. In normal circumstances, Curry would have passed to one of two open men, or taken advantage of Jameer Nelson “protecting” the rim. Instead, he set about trying to juke the Italian small forward, and lost the ball -- his eighth turnover.
“The last one I obviously want back,” Curry said. “Great opportunity to try and tie the game or take the lead, and I got stuck in between looking for the open man and handling the ball. One little mishandle and Gallinari got it.”
The Warriors had another chance, with 2.8 seconds left, due to a Klay Thompson 3-pointer and subsequent missed Gallinari free throw. This time, Iguodala erred in not passing to Curry, who sprung open, electing instead to find a covered Thompson, who missed.
These decisive mistakes under pressure occasionally happen to teams. Thanks in large part to Green’s presence, the Warriors have spent nearly half a season floating above the regret franchises are supposed to live with. Curry almost saved the Warriors from NBA reality on Wednesday. Without Green’s help, Curry lost his grip on what should have been impossible in the first place.