The Golden State Warriors entered the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Denver Nuggets poised to complete an inspirational closeout win over the third-seeded team in the West. After struggling to a 42-40 halftime deficit, the Warriors turned things around to take the third quarter 33-20 on the strength of four 3-pointers from star shooter Stephen Curry. The Nuggets looked slow to loose balls and without momentum — in other words, defeated.
Then pretty much the exact opposite happened. After taking an 80-62 lead with 9:11 on the clock, Golden State went scoreless for 4:43 to allow the Nuggets to cut the lead to five points. And while the Warriors did manage to score 12 more points the rest of the way, they did so in the least impressive way imaginable, having trouble completing basic basketball tasks like inbounding the ball and passing out of traps to turn it over nine times in the final eight minutes.
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The good news for the Warriors is that they held on, making just enough plays in the final minutes to come away with a 92-88 win to knock the Nuggets out of the playoffs in six games. Yet, while a series win is supposed to feel triumphant, the exact form of the moment gave considerable reason for concern.
To be sure, the Nuggets deserve a great deal of credit for the comeback. After playing uninspired, formless ball for much of the third quarter, Denver renewed their energy and took advantage of their length and size advantages to make things uncomfortable for Golden State. It would have been very easy for them to play out the string after falling behind by 18, but they didn't let that happen. They recaptured the collectivist, full-tilt mindset that defined their success this season and got back into a game that looked over.
Nevertheless, it was very hard to view the fourth quarter as anything other than a collapse by the Warriors. It's a largely false cliché to say that a team without much playoff experience can get overwhelmed by the moment, but the Warriors really did appear to shut down when they needed very basic execution to end the series. It's not as if this was only an issue of experience, either — veteran guard Jarrett Jack was one of the first offenders.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, will be left to wonder what they did wrong for the bulk of the series, not just one quarter. While comparing the impacts of absent players can be an inexact science, Denver appeared to miss Danilo Gallinari more than Golden State missed David Lee — who made a curious 87-second cameo 12 days after suffering a torn right hip flexor that was supposed to have kept him out of the entire postseason. In a series in which the Warriors succeeded with small, perimeter-oriented lineups, the Nuggets really could have used their second-best scorer, a player who would have allowed them to maintain a size advantage without sacrificing much-needed shooting. The Nuggets could have played much better in this series, but they also drew a particularly tough matchup.
That could be the Warriors' circumstance in their next series against the San Antonio Spurs, a team the franchise haven't beaten on the road in 29 tries. Of course, we'll have plenty of time to digest that matchup over the next few days. For now, they must consider the bizarre finish to their first-round success story. Jack put it well after the game: "That was the best bad dream I've ever had."
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