It took no time at all.
From the very start of the Denver Nuggets Game 1 matchup with the Golden State Warriors at the Chase Center in San Francisco, it was an unavoidable fact that Denver did not have the defenders to keep up with the Warriors offensive assault.
With any two of Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry on the court, the Nuggets do not have the requisite perimeter defenders to keep them all in check. All of Austin Rivers, Will Barton III, Monte Morris, Bones Hyland, Bryn Forbes, and even Aaron Gordon had their fair share of struggles in all manner of situations.
While there are multiple issues to address – Gordon’s struggles on offense, Denver’s lack of 3-point shooting against the hot-shooting Warriors, and bad paint defense on top of everything else – the Nuggets will have no chance in this series if they cannot find a creative and unexpected adjustment to limit the Warriors perimeter assault.
Even from the Warriors first made shot of the night, it became clear that the Nuggets were at a major disadvantage.
Immediately, the Warriors threw multiple off-ball actions at the Nuggets defense. Thompson received a very light double-drag screen from Poole and Draymond Green on the base line, but that was just a decoy to get Poole separation as he jumps out to the 3-point line by crossing in front of Jeff Green to force the switch. That double-drag on the baseline forced the Nuggets make one extra decision and that opened up the slightest window to steal an advantage. That single action was all the Warriors needed to get Kevon Looney a wide open layup.
As the play progresses, Jeff Green is eventually forced to switch off of Andrew Wiggins and onto the quick and shifty Poole due to Morris being out of position. To make matters worse, Morris ended up on Wiggins after switching which was precisely what the Warriors wanted; they suddenly had two options to attack a bent Nuggets defense. They could feed Wiggins in the post against the much smaller Morris or attack Jeff Green in the pick and roll.
The Warriors chose the latter. As soon as the switch took place, Poole went straight into a pick and roll with Looney knowing Jeff Green would not be able to keep up as he fought over the screen which forced Jokic to step further up the court – and away from Looney – to deny Poole an open 3-point attempt. That small bend in the Nuggets defense left a wide open lane for Looney to roll into the paint and hit an uncontested layup after a good pocket pass by Poole.
This is not anything new from what the Warriors have been doing for years. Denver knew precisely what they would be dealing with. But unfortunately, no matter how much insight and preparation the Nuggets may have, they are simply unequipped to handle Golden State.
One of the big issues for the Nuggets is that it is not just Curry and Thompson who are terrifyingly-threatening shooters; Poole in his own right has become downright lethal and he demands defensive attention when he is on the floor on or off the ball.
As Poole cuts across the paint, he slows down to screen Jeff Green as the Warriors continue looking to force another switch as Poole did in the first clip. This time Green does not switch, but Morris is already trailing much too far behind Poole opening a slight opening.
As Poole jumps out from the mess of bodies in the paint, he strategically sprints away from Thompson which forces Barton to choose between Poole, the easier target for a pass from Green, or Thompson, one of the greatest shooters of all time, while Morris gets hung up in the paint.
To be clear, Barton made the right decision to jump out to Poole and leave Thompson open. Giving Draymond Green that easy of a passing window to Poole for an open 3-pointer is just as bad if not worse than leaving Thompson open another 10 feet away.
Still, the clip above shows how small the margin for error is for the Nuggets. Being one or two seconds late reading a switch is the difference between a wide open triple and a contested shot. Denver has to find a way to shorten their lag time between decisions.
More evidence of that gap-time between decisions lies in the clip below. Morris and Jeff Green successfully navigate a down-screen to get Wiggins a post up and Denver has the Warriors well defended, but Morris hesitates for less than a half second and it is just enough time for Poole to jump out to about 28-feet from the rim and drill a 3-pointer.
Again, the margin for error is so thin, Morris slowed up simply to make sure Looney would not have an easy walk to the rim for another uncontested layup as he did on the first bucket of the game for Golden State. Because of that slight gap-time in his decision making process, the Warriors generated another made 3-pointer.
If an issue with timing was the Nuggets only problem defending the perimeter, they would be able to work through those problems and possibly overcome them, but there are also clear faults in their execution and communication as a team.
The clip below is a simple inbounds play from the baseline for Golden State, but Morris once again fails to execute the game plan. You can see Barton call for the switch when he puts his hand in the air. Barton knew trailing Wiggins would only result in either a foul or a layup so passing Wiggins to Morris is the correct defensive decision.
Unfortunately, Morris did not hear the call to switch or see Barton raise his arm to signify that he cannot get over the screen. Either way, it resulted it a blown defensive coverage that left Wiggins with one of the easiest basket of his playoff career.
That is not an issue with timing. That is not getting beat due to lack of talent. Denver did find itself defending against a particularly brilliant out-of-bounds play call. This is simply bad communication.
Once again, Denver’s struggles communicating on defense continued to rear its ugly head. This has been a problem that has plagued them for majority of the season. Denver is quiet on defense and it leads to breakdowns.
The first switch in the clip below goes well. Morris and Barton switch onto Thompson and Curry respectively. Being the savvy veterans that Curry and Thompson are, they reversed the screening action which allowed Curry to spring into a dribble-handoff with Draymond Green without any defender connected to him; a dire situation for a defense.
Jokic knew how dangerous Curry is in open space so he jumps way out to contain the former MVP, but that has a ripple effect. Now, Draymond Green has a clear lane to roll to the front of the rim which forces Barton to stay in the paint; not remain glued to Thompson’s hip. Thompson knew this so he just sprinted to the corner and waited for Curry to deliver the pass.
All of this cascaded into an open 3-pointer for the second greatest shooter of all time because Morris and Barton miscommunicated the second switch between Curry and Thompson. I know it has been said a couple times already in this story, but it shows just how thin the Nuggets margin for error is on defense with so many threats on the Warriors roster.
Even when the Nuggets run their defense as well as they can, there are simply too many shooters on the floor who can light it up from anywhere within 32 feet of the rim. In the clip below, Denver has no options when Draymond Green drives to the rim. No matter the decision they make, they will be giving up and advantage.
Denver’s defense is strong all the way up until Draymond Green backs out and runs a dribble handoff with Curry. Denver is not mismatched and are actually in as good of a position as possible all things considered. Still, it did not matter.
Green might have been moving on his screen on Rivers, but ultimately it is irrelevant. With Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr., and Thompson spacing on the opposite side of the floor, Denver’s defense is warped which allows Curry to bend it to its limit.
As soon as Curry comes off the screen, Jokic knows Rivers will not be able to keep up so he has no choice but to step up and contain Curry, but just like it was on the first Warriors bucket of the game, that decision left a wide open lane to roll to the rim for Draymond Green.
What is Denver supposed to do? Green is one of the greatest passing bigs ever so helping off any of Porter, Thompson, or Wiggins will turn a two-point layup into a 3-pointer. If Jokic drops lower into the paint to contain the roll by Draymond Green, Curry ends up with an open triple. Denver could try to trap Curry, but he has seen every type of trap imaginable over his career. He could easily outlet the ball to Draymond Green and allow him to create while attacking the Nuggets four-on-three after Denver sent two guys at Curry.
Oh, and every single one of the clips above came only in the first quarter — Denver’s best defensive quarter of the game. From there, Denver’s defense only slipped further and further towards disaster.
It is hard to look ahead and see how the Nuggets can adjust. Plus, waiting for the Warriors to miss shots is not a sustainable strategy. Curry shot just 5-13 in Game 1. Denver just finished their game with unorthodox misses by the Warriors best player. Expecting another slump like that is not a smart bet.
It is easy to sit back and call this an overreaction to a underdog losing Game 1 on the road of the first round of the playoffs. That stance has many merits and could certainly be true, but based on the film, Denver was unable to stop the Warriors despite knowing exactly how Golden State would attack them. There is a reason the Warriors are -2000 to win the series according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Sometimes, teams are simply ill-equipped. Sometimes the opponent is too ideally constructed. Sometimes, there are no answers to be found.