The Sixth Man: The good, bad, and ugly from the first two games

Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors - Game Two
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Time to panic?

I would say it can’t get much worse for the Denver Nuggets, but who knows what is to come throughout this series. Losing the first two games on the road is not a death sentence, but the way Denver is playing right now, they appear close to their demise. They have lost both games by 16+ points, and tempers are starting to flare.

Nikola Jokic was ejected in Game 2, Monte Morris recorded a technical, and Barton and Boogie started a verbal altercation on the sidelines. There might not have been any pressure on the Nuggets to win this series because they are the underdog, but there is certainly pressure now as they are on the verge of getting swept.

Monte Morris perfectly summed up the feeling of every Denver player, coach, and fan after the game.

This may be this group’s largest test yet. Overcoming two 3-1 deficits will always live in Denver’s basketball lore, but this is a different beast. In my opinion, Golden State has the best home-court advantage in all of basketball. Even when I’m sitting at home, I can feel the vibrations of the crowd, and there is nothing worse than one of their guards hitting a ridiculously tough three, and the crowd explodes. It makes me want to take a baseball bat to my T.V., so I understand where Denver’s frustration comes from, but I am just a fan.

The team has to keep better composure or they will be one of the laughing stocks of the league once again. Jokic’s MVPs will be invalidated by many if they get swept twice in two years, so these upcoming games are very crucial for the respect of this franchise and its players. Golden State is surely the better team, but the Nuggets are no slouch. They have what it takes to steal a couple of games, but they need to revive their confidence on both ends of the floor.

I pondered titling this piece, “The bad, the worse, and the ugly,” but the truth is there have been good moments. Denver has obtained a lead in both games, and their defense in the first quarter of Game 2 was effective. If they can build on their momentum out of the gate, it will make for much more competitive contests. The unpleasant moments will come. Golden State will go on 10-0, 15-0 scoring runs, but they must counter with their own runs because what follows will display who this team truly is.

Good

I know it seems like this series is already over, which it may be, but there have been good moments. Denver’s energy in the first quarter has been a welcome sight. It is very tough to start well in that building because the Warrior players and fans are beaming with energy. That tells me the Nuggets do have what it takes to overcome the spirit of the Chase Center, but they have to take that potential and demonstrate it throughout the game.

This is what the Nuggets are missing from their guards. This is a nice play by Forbes, but you would like to see it out of every Nugget guard. Once he receives the handoff, he notices the paint is wide open so he drives. That driving action makes the Warriors completely collapse the paint as four defenders have their eyes glued to him, which leaves Boogie wide open for three.

That clip is Forbes dictating the defense. Unfortunately, for the majority of this series, the Warriors have been dictating how the Nuggets play offense. They are diverse in the looks they give Jokic, but when the guards drive, they often close the paint with multiple defenders. Jokic cannot be the only one forcing multiple Warrior bodies into the paint. The guards have to look to score in that area, and when they throw multiple defenders in the paint, that means somebody is open on the perimeter.

The confidence they have in quarter one needs to translate throughout the contest despite in-game adversity. Denver has won both first quarters because they are dictating the pace. They have forced turnovers and got out in transition, and in the half-court, they are spacing the floor for the drive and kick opportunities. During the second half, they seem to throw out their game plan and play backyard basketball. At home, they should be able to sustain better momentum, but they must stick to their game plan and absorb adversity.

Bad

Right when that buzzer sounds for the second half to begin, everything has gone downhill for the Nuggets. Besides the fourth, the third quarter might be the most important quarter for Denver throughout the remainder of the series. It sets the tone for the whole second half, and that tone is being directed by the Warriors right now. They outscored Denver by 9 in the third quarter of Game 1 and by 14 in Game 2.

One big reason for this downfall is how they are closing the second quarter. It has been horrendous. Denver has been very competitive through the first quarter and half of the second, but after that, it has been almost unwatchable. With seven minutes left in the second, Denver took a 43-31 lead in Game 2. After that, the Warriors scored 26 points to end the quarter.

That’s okay right? It’s only 57-51 at the half, this game is still manageable. No, the momentum Golden State gained at the end of the quarter strengthened their confidence to finish the game. They scored 44 points in the 3rd quarter, and if you combine that with the 26 points at the end of the 2nd, they scored 70 points in 19 minutes.

This is certainly a play that helped Denver spiral out of control. They are only down eight here, and a stop at the end of the quarter could bring some confidence into the Denver defense. Instead, Barton gives up a wide-open three. The Warriors love those handoffs between Green and Curry, but this time Curry chooses to fake it. Barton doesn’t keep his eye on his man and gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Shane Young describes it perfectly by saying it’s too “easy.” Whatever the Warriors want, they are getting in the second half, and Denver has not found a remedy.

Here is an example of not knowing your personnel. Rivers is guarding Curry, but Porter Jr. is going to “set a screen,” but really he’s just grabbing him. Unfortunately, that is not the worst part of this play. Rivers actually turns his back on the best shooter ever to guard Otto Porter Jr. He leaves JaMychal on an island, resulting in the Warrior’s second four-point play of the game. If Rivers keeps fighting over the grab and stays on Curry, and it leaves Porter Jr. open, so what? They have to get the ball out of Curry’s hands and dare the others outside of Thompson and Poole to shoot.

Ugly

There have been countless ugly parts to this series, but the ugliest has to be the lack of team comradery. The Warriors are difficult enough to beat with a tight-knit group, but if Denver remains separated, they have no chance. Golden State will talk some trash and dance for the exact reason we saw on Monday. Their antics, coupled with Denver’s lack of success, got into their heads, and when the Warriors saw the Nuggets arguing with one another, they knew at that moment they had won the game.

Furthermore, Denver has to accept they are not going to get the benefit of the whistle. The constant complaining of calls must stop because you’re not focused on the task at hand if you’re complaining about calls. I’ve seen Denver players complain about a call numerous times, not hustle back on defense, and the Warriors run it up the court for an easy basket.

Jokic has to take ownership of this. He is the leader of this team and however he reacts, this team will follow. He has reacted poorly early in this series, which is why you see a level-headed player like Monte receive a technical. That attitude disseminates itself throughout the group. Yes, Jokic is not receiving the foul calls he should be getting, but his attitude, along with the teams’ attitude towards those calls, is creating havoc for Denver. Not only that, but they are starting to gain that soft, whiny reputation once again, and teams like the Warriors are feasting on it.

Basketball-wise, the defensive communication has been a weak spot to put it nicely. Golden State does such a great job with consistent movement, and they constantly confuse Denver’s defenders. The problem is the lack of communication does not just happen in the half-court. Nugget defenders appear confused off their own made basket. They jog down the court, not knowing who is guarding who, and the Warriors are taking advantage.

If Steph Curry continues to get offered these open looks off a made basket, he might drop a 50-ball here soon. Once Curry approaches the half-court line, Denver is in immediate confusion. Monte is pointing at someone to get Steph, Barton is wondering who is going to guard him; there is just complete chaos here. Barton finally decides to defend Steph, but he is not ready at all physically or mentally. He doesn’t maintain an athletic defensive stance, he doesn’t have full concentration on the ball, and it results in an open three for Curry. This is also another example of how atrocious Denver’s defense has been at the end of the second quarter.

The Nuggets don’t have the horses right now to defeat a healthy Warriors squad, but this Denver team that did not like to subscribe to readily available excuses in the regular season. They are not losing these games because Murray or MPJ are sidelined with injury. They are losing them because they are playing lousy, undisciplined basketball. With this series headed to Denver for two, we will be able to define who the 2021-2022 Nuggets really are.

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