Great playoff basketball between evenly matched basketball teams always involves a chess match between the head coaches. Each coach tries to find the adjustments and counter-adjustments that can give his team a winning edge. If you are lucky, you can catch a series where the adjustments are so major and brilliant, and their effect so profound, that your expectations for how the games will be played are constantly smashed, and your brain starts whirling trying to adjust to each new reality as it unfolds.
This series we are watching between the Denver Nuggets under George Karl and the Golden State Warriors under Mark Jackson is just such a series.
In the first game of this series, due to presence of David Lee and the absence of Kenneth Faried, the Warriors matched up big against small. The result was a 97-95 loss that was decided chiefly in the half-court, with Stephen Curry being taken out of the game by the blitzing of Wilson Chandler, and Andre Miller dominating his matchup against Jarret Jack around the basket.
In the second game, due to the injury to Lee, Mark Jackson made the brilliant decision to go small, with Harrison Barnes at the four, and to raise the Warriors tempo into an all-out running attack. The Chandler blitz was taken out of the equation by the use of centers rather than power forwards to set the high pick. And Jack was given help on Miller. The result was an explosion of offense led by Stephen Curry, and a 131-117 blowout victory on the Nuggets’ home court. And all of a sudden it felt like a brand-new series. One in which the Warriors might actually have the edge.
But George Karl was not content to accept this new reality of Warriors-Nuggets basketball, as dictated by Mark Jackson. In this Game 3, he sprang a major adjustment of his own. A huge surprise. Kenneth Faried returned to the starting lineup, as expected, but instead of returning to his normal position, power forward, he was played at center. Faried at center, guarding Andrew Bogut! Kosta Koufos was benched.
Karl made this surprising adjustment for several reasons. First and foremost, as an attempt to control Stephen Curry in the pick and roll. That’s why I refer to it as “The Curry Adjustment.” In Game 2, Curry made mincemeat of both Koufos and McGee: they’re not quick enough to blitz him, and their hedges just made it easy for him to either shoot the three, or get around them into a vacated lane. Faried was able to blitz both Curry and Jack hard to start the game, and completely disrupt the Warriors offense.
The second reason Karl made this adjustment was to make the Nuggets faster on the court. Better able to run with the suddenly Nellieball Warriors. Karl gambled that the increase in speed and athleticism would outweigh the loss in half-court defense.
And the third reason Karl made this adjustment is because Andrew Bogut has no offense. Karl gambled that the Warriors could not punish this mismatch by posting Bogut up, and that is exactly what we saw. They only tried to post him up twice, and both attempts ended in failure.
There’s little question that this brilliant Karl adjustment caught the Warriors by surprise in the first half. The Nuggets suddenly had the quickness advantage all over the floor, Curry and Jack dribbled into several Nuggets traps, and the Warriors coughed up a bevy of turnovers that got the Nuggets out on their patented fastbreak.
And once again it felt like a brand new series, as the Nuggets went into the locker room up 66-54 at half.
But George Karl’s adjustment proved in the end to be not enough for the Nuggets to pull this game out. I think there were several reasons why the Warriors prevailed. First, because Mark Jackson responded at halftime with an adjustment of his own to make Curry harder to trap. Letting Jack initiate more, but also, in the words of George Karl, by “playing the ball in the middle of the court more often, which made it a little bit harder [for the trap] to get to.”
Second, because Faried tired badly late in the game, and his hedges got softer and softer. In the fourth quarter in particular, Curry did to him exactly what he did to Koufos in the previous game.
Third, because this Nuggets team really can’t shoot. Jackson would like to credit his defense for the Nuggets second half collapse. And I would definitely credit Draymond Green for his great defense on Andre Miller (and Mark Jackson for creating this matchup). But I think it’s chiefly because the Nuggets simply couldn’t put the ball in the ocean from outside in the second half.
And fourth, because the Warriors are a dominant Nellieball team at the moment. Let’s face it, Curry and Jack simply cannot be guarded on a floor being spread by Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes.
In this game, George Karl told you just how dominant Stephen Curry and Jarret Jack and the rest of this Warriors team are in a Nellieball system. He paid them the ultimate compliment: Throwing the lineup and the system the Nuggets had been playing all season long into the trash can, by benching Kosta Koufos, and trying to rewrite this series on the fly.
Does this remind you of anything? Of, perhaps, the Squeaky General benching Eric Dampier under the onslaught of We Believe?
This is what a dominant Nellieball team does. It has its fans and bloggers and Owner/GMs worried about getting crushed in the paint and on defense and on the boards, right up until the moment that it blows the other team out of its home gym, and their coach benches his centers in an effort to compete.
George Karl is now trying to match up with Mark Jackson.
Stephen Curry: The World’s Greatest Shooter, yes. That’s finally being recognized by a national audience. A perennial all-star, starting next year. That’s obvious to everyone now as well.
But do we know yet whether he’s a “point guard?” Matt Steinmetz, care to weigh in on that contentious issue?
He is also, as I’ve been saying since forever, one of the clutchest players I’ve ever seen. Those consecutive 4th Q plays in the lane, that left-handed scoop, followed by the right-handed floater… rocked.
He is torturing some of the best wing defenders in the league.
JACK: The bonehead 5 seconds call and 7 turnovers, yes. But this was a monster performance.
The Nuggets don’t seem to have an answer for the Warriors two-point guard backcourt.
I keep wondering, does Lacob intend to keep it? Or does he want Barnes to play in the fourth quarter next season? Hard to see how both can happen, once David Lee returns.
Carl Landry: His best game of the year? McGee and Koufos were shockingly ineffective against him.
I think Karl is making a mistake by not doubling him when he puts the ball on the floor. Karl is so afraid to leave the Warriors shooters that he might not realize that Landry can’t find them.
Bogut: He did his job, but I think his performance has declined since his opening game gem. I think Faried outplayed him, particularly in the first half. Outquicked him on the boards. Beat him down court. Gave him some problems on defense, while guarding him without problem.
Continues to set teeth-rattling screens, which are highly entertaining to watch. I wondered whether his dustup with McGee had anything to do him jolting the soul out of Lawson’s body on the previous possession.
Something to worry about: Whether Faried gets stronger as this series progresses, while Bogut’s ankle gets weaker. There’s only one game rest between games now.
Ezeli: Absolutely great defense in his 7 minutes. 3 blocks.
Curry singled him out for praise for his game-ending defense on Ty Lawson, when he hedged on the pick, and chased Lawson towards the corner. Look at the big fella move his feet. Is there a more mobile true center in the league? He’s one of the smartest and most competitive as well.
A fabulous Nellieball piece.
Harrison Barnes: Karl didn’t make the mistake of putting a power forward on Barnes in this game. And as a result, Barnes got nothing going to the basket. Each of his drives ended badly.
But he keeps knocking down his jumpers, when he’s not being guarded by Chandler. Pretty sure that all the ones he hit were shot over Lawson or Miller. That’s the fabulous position that Barnes finds himself in in this series. All of the Nuggets wing defenders are preoccupied by Curry, Jack and Thompson.
He still has to knock them down, though, and doesn’t seem fazed at all by the stage.
His defense didn’t catch my eye in this game, which is a good thing. And I am in general completely perplexed that the Nuggets aren’t going to Wilson Chandler more often. I thought he’d have a major role in this series. Perhaps Barnes is playing him better than I thought he could. But perhaps not. I think the Nuggets have just been going elsewhere. Like to this guy:
Andre Iguodala: Iggy is one of the premier wing defenders in the league, but I’ve never liked him as a player. Argued strongly against the Warriors trading Monta for him, when that was being rumored.
You’ve seen the reason why in the last two games, in spades. Iggy is a terrible offensive player in the half-court, despite the fact that he’s a great facilitator. The problem is that he can’t shoot, but he wants very badly to be the man on every team he’s on. That’s a bad combination.
Have you noticed that Mark Jackson is frequently hiding Curry or Jack on Iggy? Smart.
Klay Thompson: Rough game for Klay, but not without reason. It can be a little hard to track all the matchups in this series, particularly since both teams are cross-matching everywhere, and switching at least four players at all times, but I’m pretty sure Klay was Iggy’s primary focus in this game, instead of Curry as in past games. And it looked to me like Iggy had been instructed to never leave him open.
Karl had very little success taking Curry out of the game with Iggy. Perhaps he’s decided taking Klay out is a reasonable alternative. And resort to team defense on Curry.
Draymond Green: Like Ezeli, absolutely stellar on defense. Largely responsible for Andre Miller’s 2-13.
On offense, nothing but threes and layups. That’s the ticket.
It is truly remarkable just how poised the Warriors rookies have been in this series. It has to be said that regardless of how you evaluate their talents, their IQ, preparation and courage under fire is a cut above.
The Series: The Warriors were still a +220 dog in the series coming into this game. I discussed that price with several of my friends, but none of us were willing to bet it, although we felt that Game 2 indicated that the Nuggets would have serious problems matching up with the newly Nellieball Warriors. Curry’s ankle had a lot to do with that. Not to mention Bogut’s.
It will be interesting to see whether they remain a dog after this game. The Nuggets are definitely in trouble in this series. I think the fact of Karl’s radical adjustment is solid evidence that he himself believes that.
I think we can expect the Warriors to play better against Faried at center, and the Nuggets traps, now that they’ve seen them.
But concerns remain. The possibility of future adjustments, of course. But also the possibility that Faried gets healthier, and the Nuggets just start playing better.
George Karl made some interesting remarks after this game:
“The second half of this game was an offensive game. I don’t think we can win without getting defense into the game. [We have to look at ways] to take the layup out, and cover the ball better.”
“The process of a playoff series is to get better, and we got better in this game.”
“[It's a long series, and we're going to one game rest between games now.] They play 8 guys. Maybe our 9 to 10 guys will get stronger….”