The Denver Nuggets were back at home in Ball Arena in front of a great crowd and were playing strong basketball after a demoralizing back-to-back losses in San Fransisco.
It was halfway into the second quarter and the Nuggets actually were all knotted up with the Golden State Warriors at 45 points apiece. It felt like the Nuggets might have finally found enough answers to extend this series against the Warriors.
After a soft showing in the first two games of the series, Denver was significantly more physical with the Warriors. No longer were over half of Golden State’s shots uncontested and Denver was battling for paint supremacy from the opening tip. The Nuggets also finally stopped giving away so many free points after allowing the Warriors to score over 45% of their total points off turnovers, from second-chance points and at the foul line.
As quickly as hope reemerged for the Nuggets, it was just as rapidly dashed away by Golden State.
“We felt like we should have won that game and been 2-1 in a whole different series, but we are not done yet,” Aaron Gordon said.
After being tied 45-45, the Nuggets let the Warriors go on an extended 25-15 run to take a 10-point lead into halftime. For all of the improvements Denver had made, it did not matter. The sheer talent level of the Warriors offensive assault from the perimeter was just too much to overcome no matter how close to perfect the Nuggets played. Every mistake, no matter how small, was capitalized on by the Warriors.
“They capitalize on every mistake,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “Games 1 and 2, I mean, it was at a point that they literally were capitalizing on every turnover we had.”
Still, Denver did not fold. They came out of halftime and went on an 15-5 run out of the gate to tie up the game at 74 points despite just how un-guardable the Warriors had been thus far. Thanks to a few missed shots from the Warriors and Denver running off of those missed shots, the Nuggets were able to control the pace of the game and create better shots for Jokic and his teammates.
Suddenly, Gordon was finding gaps in the defense for cuts, offensive rebounds, and other finishes around the rim. Monte Morris was no longer attacking an overloaded defense. Barton was finding the bottom of the net on his 3-point shots. Everything finally clicked and the Nuggets pushed their lead up to five points. Even their defensive communication dramatically improved which directly led to a boost in defensive impact.
The crowd grew boisterous, the momentum began to swing, and for the first time all series, the Nuggets were the aggressors. No longer were they getting punched; they were now punching back and what they were finding was that they can hang with Golden State.
“I’ll say this. I could not be more proud of our group,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I know it sounds weird because it was in a loss and there are no moral victories in the playoffs; I get that, but we gave ourselves a chance tonight. We did not do that in Golden State. We put outselves in a position late to beat a very good basketball team. Were we perfect? No. Did we make mistakes at times? Yes. But I love how we fought tonight. We stayed with it, we got down, things were getting away from us at times, but we stayed with it and stayed together. We kept fighting and battled…That was what I was hoping for.”
But once again, as soon as hope reemerged, it was dashed. It took the Warriors just 90 seconds to storm back and steal the lead that Denver had fought so hard to obtain. It was just another example of how demoralizing playing the Warriors can be. Even with Denver rolling and finding ways to exploit the Warriors, it still just did not matter. Just one or two mistakes can eliminate over two quarters of work in less than three minutes.
Denver knew they needed to play desperate to keep things close and they did exactly that. Their foot never came off the gas as they traded leads with Golden State throughout the third quarter; eventually winning the frame 30-18 allowing the Nuggets to carry a two-point lead into the final quarter of Game 3.
“I felt in that third quarter, we were the aggressors and attackers on both ends,” Malone said. “Everything we did, we did with force. We had high, active hands, deflections, turnovers, and we got out and ran off of that.
“Tonight, I felt we got offense from our defense and that ignited that third quarter run.”
Every opportunity the Nuggets had been looking for was right in front of them. They had a lead heading into the fourth quarter and most of the momentum was on Denver’s side. Their added physicality had made a big difference thus far and they were on their way to making this a series. All they had to do was not lose the final quarter of the game. Just 12 minutes stood between them and new life in their first round playoff series.
The Nuggets bench unit did just enough to keep the game close. Their defense was well-connected, they scored just enough, and their effort was fantastic. Denver did lose their two-point lead as the Warriors went up four points with just under nine minutes left, but that is when Malone went back to his starters.
The season was on the line. If Denver went down 3-0 against the Warriors, all hope would be lost. So, with no time to waste, Malone went back to the starting unit he had trusted all year long and Denver’s deficit quickly fell to just one point.
So what would it be? Would the Nuggets find the strength and resolve to finish out a tightly contested playoff game in front of their home crowd with the season on the line? Or would they let off the gas and fall flat and allow their season to essentially come to an end?
Over the final eight minutes of the game, not everything went right, but the Nuggets played with the requisite urgency and assertiveness to give them an edge while the Warriors outside shooting was just enough to keep the Nuggets at bay. Possession after possession, both the Nuggets and Warriors flirted with disaster and success equally. The gravity of the moment hung heavy in the air.
Every possession came down to the details. Every defensive possession came down to who was willing to give whatever energy they had left on each closeout and screen fought over. Jokic in particular was flying out to shooters every time it was needed. Gordon was doing his best to smother Curry on the perimeter. Every single player on the court for both teams were locked in and focused.
“That is a very talented team that has a lot — a lot — of playoff experience between Draymond, Klay and Steph so the devil is in the details,” Malone said. “We just have to be more detailed and disciplined to pull the win out and we were close tonight; just not close enough.”
Denver grabbed a lead with just over three minutes left after Jokic scored his 37th point of the night, but Denver lost control in just one possession. The Nuggets had gotten a stop, but as the rebound was available, Barton failed to box out Wiggins who slid in, grabbed the offensive rebound, and found Poole for a highlight reel layup.
“I thought a really big play was the offensive rebound that Wiggins gets,” Malone said. “That was one where you play good defense, the shot is taken, and you kind of just get guys ball watching. It has to be a ball that we come up with in that type of a game where it is a one possession game. We cannot afford second chance opportunities and they ended up scoring on the ensuing possession.”
From that moment on, the Nuggets lost their swagger. Golden State quickly scored four points and suddenly Denver was down by five points with just 40 seconds left in regulation and their season on the line.
Once again, Denver’s nonexistent margin of error became their Achilles heel. That single mistake from Barton, despite a strong game overall, effectively ended Denver’s season. The Warriors are now overwhelming favorites to win the series after taking Game 3 according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“We had a great chance to pull this game out, but those mistakes towards the end were very costly,” Cousins said.
Even with Denver playing as well as they have played in the postseason so far, it was just not enough. Even with Denver having more second-chance points than Golden State, more free throws made, and a bigger boost from role players on both ends of the court, Denver still could not win despite being on their home floor.
The tough truth to accept is that Denver is simply the worse team. Despite everything Denver did, it was never going to be enough.