The Golden State Warriors entered Thursday night needing one more win to clinch their second straight playoff berth and lock down back-to-back postseason trips for the first time since the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons. They'll enter Friday still looking for that clinching victory, thanks to an out-of-body-experience type of game from Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov and a pretty stunning bit of last-second shot-making from power forward Kenneth Faried.
The Warriors took control of the game late in the first quarter and led by as many as 20 points midway through the second. But Brian Shaw's club clawed back in the third quarter behind a balanced offensive attack (four different Nuggets scored six points in the frame), timely defense and strong board-clearing that led to transition opportunities (Denver outscored Golden State 11-5 on the fast break in the third), cutting the Warriors' lead to 75-73 at the end of three quarters.
The two teams battled back and forth throughout the final 12 minutes, answering one another's runs and never allowing the opponent to gain more than two possessions' worth of separation — the largest lead either team held during the fourth quarter was five points, with Golden State leading 80-75 two minutes into the quarter and Denver going up 90-85 midway through the fourth.
The nip-and-tuck battle continued into the final minute. Watch how the wild finish unfolded:
Warriors All-Star point guard Stephen Curry giving Golden State a one-point lead with 4.7 seconds left after a dazzling display of dribbling punctuated by a tough 6-foot floater over the outstretched arms of a contesting Faried. But Shaw had a timeout left in his pocket, giving the Nuggets an opportunity to respond. Unlike Denver's March 31 matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, which saw Shaw draw up a final possession 3-pointer by 7-foot-1 pivot Mozgov that didn't pan out so hot, this time he went to emerging offensive threat Faried. The decision paid off handsomely.
As Nuggets guard Randy Foye prepared to trigger the inbounds, Mozgov popped up from the left elbow to set an off-ball screen for guard Evan Fournier, who was streaking left from the top of the key toward the basket for a potential lob pass. The alley-oop didn't come, so Fournier retreated to the left corner, with point guard Aaron Brooks occupying the same space on the opposite side of the court; Foye instead inbounded to Faried, guarded by Golden State defender Draymond Green, at the right elbow.
As Foye cut to the top of the key, tracked by Warriors defensive ace Andre Iguodala, Faried turned and took a hard dribble to his right before pivoting, reversing his field into the paint and letting loose a right-handed half-hook over Green's outstretched arms. The shot softly hit back rim and rattled in, giving Denver a 100-99 lead with 0.5 seconds remaining.
The Warriors got one more shot off, but Curry's catch-and-shoot from 30 feet away came up just short on the front iron, giving Denver a 100-99 win that was made all the more impressive considering it came on the second night of a back-to-back after beating the Houston Rockets, and with the Nuggets fielding only nine able bodies, thanks to both the smaller-scale injuries (Ty Lawson's sprained left ankle, Wilson Chandler's strained left groin) that have upset their apple cart of late and the raft of season-ending injuries that have plagued their 2013-14 campaign.
Warriors fans in attendance at Oracle Arena — and, in all likelihood, many fans watching at home — probably thought the third-year pro traveled in the midst of his spin into the lane, and to be sure, it's a close call. But when you run the tape back and slow it down, it appears that Faried maintains control of his dribble through his spin move and gathers the ball as he's turning, entitling him to two steps once he touches down. The right foot comes down first, followed by the left; he doesn't move his left again, but rather goes straight up into the air following the jump stop to let the shot go. It's a razor-thin line, but it seems as if the referees were right to keep their whistles in their pockets on this one.
The late-second hook shot gave Faried — an emerging leader who has averaged just under 20 points per game on a 56 percent mark from the field since the beginning of March — 18 points on 8 for 18 shooting to go with 17 rebounds (eight of which came on the offensive glass) in 33 minutes of work. And yet, he wasn't even the most impressive member of the Nuggets frontcourt on Thursday night.
That honor belonged to Mozgov, the former New York Knicks big man and Russian national team center, who tied a career high with 23 points on 10 for 15 shooting, and set a new career high by pulling down 29 rebounds — including nine on the offensive glass — to go with three assists, three blocks and a steal in 43 minutes of work. Not only were Mozgov's 29 boards a career best, but they were also the top single-game total of the 2013-14 season, topping 26-rebound outings by Dwight Howard and Andre Drummond, and they make the St. Petersburg product one of only 12 players since 1985 to corral at least 29 caroms, joining Charles Barkley, Andrew Bynum, Michael Cage, Kevin Love, Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Oakley, Dennis Rodman, Rony Seikaly, Nikola Vucevic, Herb Williams and Kevin Willis. Not bad for a player who often had a tough time cracking the rotation for former Nuggets head coach George Karl.
Not bad, but also not quite as good as what TNT's graphics crew put on the screen in time for Mozgov's postgame chat with David Aldridge:
Man. Mozgov goes for 93 and 29 tonight. Never thought I'd see that! pic.twitter.com/YiHu2YugJ4— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 11, 2014
The mistake didn't escape the notice of Oklahoma City Thunder guard Reggie Jackson:
Pay the man 2 year/240 M w/ these numbers pic.twitter.com/ggqmJiiMgA— Reggie Jackson (@rjOKCson_15) April 11, 2014
And, of course, it launched a number of "just seven points shy of Wilt!"-inspired Photoshops like this one:
Strong work, Internet.
Slightly weaker work, however, Warriors. While Curry turned in his now familiar brand of fourth-quarter magic (12 points in the frame, including that could've-been-game-winning floater), the "Splash Brothers" backcourt of Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 16 for 38 on Thursday, and the frontcourt of Green, Iguodala and Andrew Bogut — which has been pretty great in picking up the slack for David Lee, who has missed nearly three weeks with nerve inflammation in his right hamstring — just could not handle the size and aggression of Mozgov and Faried on the interior. This is Golden State's third loss at home to a sub-.500 team in the last month, coming on the heels of losses to the Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers; the Warriors held double-digit leads in the first halves of all three games before eventually coming up short.
“We just didn’t put them away when we could,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said after the game, according to Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group. “We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of business.”
Failure to do so not only prevented the Warriors from punching their ticket to the postseason, but also dropped sixth-seeded Golden State to 48-30, pushing them 2 1/2 games behind the No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers and cutting their lead over the No. 7 Phoenix Suns and No. 8 Dallas Mavericks to just one game. The Warriors can still clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, and they still have a shot at catching 51-28 Portland for the fifth seed, but Thursday's loss will make it that much tougher for them to do so.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, feel free to check the plays out elsewhere, thanks to Ben Golliver of The Point Forward.
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