Barring an unforeseen injury, is there a universe where you could see the Denver Nuggets reverse sweeping the Golden State Warriors?
Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): Nope. Denver has neither the healthy firepower nor the defensive prowess to beat a healthy Golden State in 4 straight. If Poole suddenly can’t shoot and Draymond’s leg falls off then maybe, but as it is, asking Denver to play perfect basketball for 16 quarters is too much. There’s just no margin for error, and the egregious ones the Nuggets keep making are too much to overcome over that stretch.
Peter Leensvaart (@petepizza27): Sadly, I do not think Denver has any chance at winning this series now being down 0-3. We all know that no team has ever won a series after being down 0-3. But, three teams have forced a game 7. I’m sure some of you remember that 1994 Nuggets team being one of them. However, I still think the Nuggets are out of luck and best case scenario win 1-2 games in the series. Game 3 was a valiant effort, but it still proved to be futile against this juggernaut Warriors team.
Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): Hey, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. still haven’t been ruled out, right? Right?
Seriously though, there’s no reasonable chance it happens. The Nuggets played so, so hard in Game 3 just to keep pace with Golden State, and the amount of energy they exerted during the game definitely showed through in the fourth quarter when things fell apart. There’s no shame in that either. The Nuggets are gassed. They’ve dealt with two major injuries to stars and three major injuries to reserves (including PJ Dozier who they were forced to…repurpose due to the ACL tear). No team, outside of maybe the 2016-17 Warriors themselves, could realistically survive what the Nuggets went through this year.
Who has been the biggest letdown for Denver in the series?
Gross: For the first two games I would have said Aaron Gordon, but he brought it in Game 3. That mantle has to fall to either Monte Morris or Will Barton. Monte has missed a bunch of crucial open threes, but I’m gonna go with Barton despite his Game 1 show-out. It’s been a series of terrible choices for Will, and every crucial choice he has made has been wrong to a game-tilting degree. He made a lot of good plays in the Game 3 loss, for instance, but his decision to chuck a three several feet behind the line when Jokic is right there under the basket with a smaller man on him was indicative of the large swings his decisions have caused. In a close game like the last one those choices are magnified. It’s not Will’s fault they got blown out by 16 in the first game, but as Denver’s second-most-important offensive player he was unable to step up in the next two, and his decisions at the end of each half of Game 3 alone might have been the difference.
Leensvaart: I’m gonna have to go with Will Barton. Will has had so many ups and downs in his Nuggets tenure, this might be one of the lowest lows though. Despite his 25-point game to open the series, he has done quite a bit to hurt the Nuggets in this series. We all saw the three-pointer he shot at the end of game 3. But the most egregious error from him in recent memory, in my opinion, was the offensive rebound that led to that Jordan Poole acrobatic finish at the end of the fourth. Will Barton not only watched the ball fall to the ground (granted Monte Morris and Jeff Green aren’t without blame) but also, completely ignored a wide-open Poole in the corner after the Warriors secured the ball. Will Barton is not the reason we lost that game or anything of the sort, he definitely could be better though.
Blackburn: Monte Morris is a reasonable candidate. Aaron Gordon and Will Barton are probably the two default answers, but Morris has really struggled defensively this series. The Warriors are shooting 22-of-40 from the field (55 FG%) with Morris as the primary defender, according to NBA.com’s player tracking data. Stephen Curry himself is shooting 7-of-10 from the field and 4-of-5 from three, which is basically no resistance. On top of that, Morris is shooting 1-of-8 on “wide open” threes and airballed an open corner three in a key moment in Game 3. Everyone makes mistakes, but that one was debilitating with Jokić in favorable rebounding position under the basket. Morris is supposed to be the sixth man and backup point guard on a healthy team, but this has not been a good series for him at all, and it’s mostly gone under the radar with the ire Gordon and Barton have drawn at separate points of the series.
Outside of Jokic, has there been anything positive that can be carried from this series moving forward?
Gross: The holes in the secondary roles on this team have seen the light of day. Denver can’t pretend this group can defend its way out of anything, which means their only current way to a championship is to add their 2nd and 3rd best players back in and hope to burn the league down offensively. “Like this, but more of it” is one way to pursue roster improvement, but it should prompt Denver’s front office to make more than marginal changes.
Leensvaart: The only positive I have really seen is the fact that Denver has a player who can almost single-handedly drag them to this point in the playoffs. While it is ever so obvious that the Nuggets need Murray or MPJ back, it is also clear that Denver has a talent that can surely be the number one option on a championship-level team. While it will always suck to see your team get beaten in a manner like this, I know that Jokić is fully able to bring Denver to the promised land with the right guys around him.
Blackburn: …That the series is almost over? If that’s not an adequate answer, then Aaron Gordon’s bounce back performance in Game 3 probably takes top billing for me. Perhaps it’s Bones getting some good reps this year as a lead ball handler when he will get to probably split those responsibilities next year.
Is there anyone from this series that played their way out of Denver next season?
Gross: Barton, probably. This is four straight playoff runs that Barton’s had with the Nuggets. He was beat up and ineffective in the first one, missed the second with injury, came back injured for the third and this was supposed to be his year to be finally ready and Denver is about to be swept. Again, not all his fault, but when the team drafts a guy in Bones Hyland who plays like you, whom you mentored, and who is being given bench keys to do the things you normally do we call that writing on the wall. To stay he had to burn the nets down in these playoffs, and that isn’t happening. There are some player’s on expiring contracts that I don’t expect back, and some who have player options which means it’s not in Denver’s control whether they are back in the Mile High or not. But Barton has another year on his contract and I don’t think he’ll finish it in Denver – which is kind of sad. He’s an OG Nugget, just snake-bit with injuries that have left him unable to overcome some game flaws with that amazing athleticism he used to have.
Leensvaart: My desire to move on from Will Barton has been around for a few seasons and at this point, it really hasn’t gone anywhere. I never saw what everyone else did with him and IsoBarton is my least favorite thing in the Nuggets offense. With that said, that doesn’t mean Will Barton is going anywhere. I still think there’s a role for him on this Denver team, but it’s off the bench. With the potential of Will coming off the bench, that leaves the ability to move on from Monte Morris if the front office desires. I think this series has made it clear that Will/Monte cannot be starting on a playoff-level team and with the emergence of Bones Hyland, he makes one of the 2 vets expendable. But this Denver team does not need to make significant changes and neither Barton nor Morris may get moved.
Blackburn: Barton’s the easy answer. He’s making starter money at a position where Denver can’t afford to have weaknesses defensively, and that’s what Barton has been for the entirety of the season. It’s unfortunate that it came to this in such a rough season for the team, but a trade will likely be in the works. As for the rest of the group, both JaMychal and Jeff Green have player options, and if they both pick those up and guarantee their deals for the 2022-23 season, expect the Nuggets to move at least one of the two, possibly both. The Nuggets need more athleticism and defensive playmakers on their team, and though Uncle Jeff can get up for some serious dunks, the Nuggets need a true high flyer and elite athlete that can play with energy for 48 minutes across 82 games.
What is Denver’s biggest area of need heading into the offseason after what we saw in this series?
Gross: My kingdom for a defensive on-ball stopper, or even just a slow-er. Denver doesn’t have one. Aaron Gordon is a very good defender being asked to cover 1 through 5, and it’s overexposing him. Austin Rivers can get through screeners and give some guards a tough time, but he’s not a drive stopper in heavy minutes. Denver’s gotta get a versatile defender who can slow a guard or wing that has a ball in his hands from getting effortlessly into the paint and forcing Denver’s defensive collapse. I don’t know if they can get one, but a 2 guard that can defend 1 through 3 and can make some of the Western Conference’s on-ball nightmares pass first sometimes instead of carving Denver up like a turkey would be a huge boon.
Leensvaart: A 3 and D guard. I’ve been clamoring for the Nuggets to go after a guy like Matisse Thybulle for years now. AG has been a great on-ball defender all year but, he’s just no match for the Trae Youngs or the Steph Currys of our league. Gordon as a primary help defender would be a great addition to this Nuggets team, that can only happen if Denver gets someone who can take on the primary perimeter player matchup though. It would be helpful if this mystery player could create a little off the dribble and could cash open threes, then again, isn’t every team after this player?
Blackburn: The others have it right with perimeter defense. That’s the biggest key. Don’t get that and you can kiss a championship window goodbye. Beyond that though, I do think a mentality shift is in order. The Nuggets have been the We Don’t Skip Steps team for awhile. They’re past that point, and the last two playoff runs have killed any semblance of “credit” built up from the Bubble run. The Nuggets have to take the regular season seriously again, and the devil is in the details. Elite playoff teams are finding ways to make the regular season matter again because they work on their execution throughout the year. It doesn’t have to be for a full 82 games, but the Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, and Boston Celtics all hit their strides at various points of this season and were absolutely ruthless against the opposition. They tried to kill people with their execution, precision, and attention to detail, and they’re now the top three title contenders this year as a result. That isn’t an accident. Somebody on the Nuggets has to step up and become a leader to hold others accountable, but the entire team has to experience this mentality shift. If they don’t, a championship simply won’t happen.