DENVER — The Warriors had a chance to close out the Nuggets and secure, at minimum, six days of rest before a second-round playoff series against either the Grizzlies or Timberwolveswho are currently mauling each other in a 2-2 tussle across the bracket.
But the Warriors failed, losing Game 4 in Denver, 126-122, on Sunday afternoon. They still have full control of the series and a prime chance to close it out Wednesday in San Francisco. But the issues that surfaced in the Warriors’ first playoff loss are problems that could haunt them in the coming weeks. So they’re worth examining. Here is what went most wrong for the Warriors in Game 4.
The most consequential of the Warriors’ 27 team fouls wasn’t one of their most egregious. Aaron Gordon had back cut behind their zone set up and Nikola Jokic found him for what would’ve been a crucial layup. There were two minutes left. The Nuggets were up one.
In desperation, Draymond Green crashed into the paint and took a whack at the ball as Gordon gathered to go up. He might’ve partially hit leather and probably got a of arm. The whistle came. Out of context, it’s a fine foul. Take away a Gordon layup in crunch time. Force him to earn it at the line.
But the context was relevant. Green had five fouls. The sixth disqualified him. Green missed the final 2:05 of a tight game and, unlike Game 3 when he was immense down the stretch, Green watched as the Warriors faltered and Otto Porter Jr.his replacement, committed a backbreaking turnover.
“It’s always an accumulation of fouls,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
Forty seconds into the game, Green decided to spring a quick attack double-team on Jokic. He raced over from the weak side and, a bit too frantic, poked Jokic in the eye. Jokic collapsed to the ground. The crowd came to life. Gordon and Green got into it, picking up double technicals. An overly physical, whistle-happy tone was set.
“Our man defense was pretty shitty tonight and that falls on me,” Green said. “I have to be better. I can’t foul out of the game. I can’t start off the game fouling. We had a great trap. I get a foul. I feel like it set the tone and we were fouling the rest of the game.”
Green committed the team’s first foul. Clay Thompson committed the next two. Caught on Jokic after a switch, Thompson gave him a mini bear hug on his drive. A couple of possessions later, he went reaching for Gordon’s dribble and cracked his arm. Two whistles, the second is certainly avoidable. Here they are:
Fouls are attached to various ramifications. The Nuggets have one of the worst transition defenses in the league but are decent in the half court. Whistles and stoppages slow the Warriors and allow Denver to regularly set up. Foul avoidance has been a constant talking point from the Warriors’ staff in this series. Make or miss, they can run. After free throws, they can’t.
But repetitive fouls on important players change the game to an even greater degree. Green fouling out killed the Warriors late. Thompson’s two early fouls threw the Warriors’ rotation out of whack.
After the second, Kerr had to yell down the tunnel at Steph Curry, who was on the stationary bike still warming up his legs. This forced him to enter earlier than planned and for Thompson instead of Kevon Looney, keeping the Warriors big when they plan to go small. Curry sprinted out of the tunnel WWE style but was still late enough to earn a delay of game warning. He missed his first three shots badly. The whole situation felt rushed.
Thompson’s jumper was scorching on Sunday. He finished with 32 points on 12-of-20 shooting, hitting 7 of 11 3s. But he might’ve been near 40 in a Warriors win had he been able to stay on the floor in the first half. Thompson only played nine first-half minutes and committed four fouls. His fourth came on an inbound with 0.6 seconds left when he tried to get open under the rim.
“Not very smart by me,” Thompson said. “I tried to pull a sneaky vet move by pulling (Austin) Rivers’ arm, but I was too demonstrative with it. Wasn’t sly enough.”
This has been and will be a regular problem for the skilled but smaller Warriors. Bigger teams attack them with brute force. They committed 21 fouls per game this season, fourth-most in the NBA.
But 27 is an egregious amount. That’s the sixth most all season for the Warriors and the highest for them in this series. Jokic will draw whistles. Gordon has been upping his aggression the past two games and drew 10 well-earned free throws on Sunday. But the Warriors also committed several avoidable mistakes, which compounded the issue.
This full from Jordan Poole is an example. He just crashes into Monte’ Morris on a 3-point attempt. It gives Morris three free throws and allows Denver to set its defense on the next possession. These are the whistles that must be avoided.
The Warriors had 27 team fouls. Kerr: “I thought that was the whole game. Our fouling.” pic.twitter.com/QALtScy903
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 24, 2022
It’s natural for a basketball team to lose its urgency when the situation becomes less urgent. From a playoff perspective, it doesn’t get any less urgent than a 3-0 lead in the first round against a team without two of its three best players — an opponent that’s shown to lack the necessary firepower to realistically threaten to win four straight .
So maybe that’s the reason why the Warriors’ defense suddenly had more breakdowns and operated with a decreased level of attentiveness in Game 4. Kerr guessed that they were back cut more than the previous three combined games. Denver made 15 of 31 from deep and finished with an offensive rating of 123.5 after failing to creep past 115 prior.
There are several clips to hammer home the inattentive point, but let’s zoom into Morris’ third quarter. The Warriors’ offense got back on track after halftime. Both Thompson and Curry ignited. But they could never gain too much momentum because Morris was equally as hot.
All five of Morris’ 3s came in the third quarter. This is a clip of his fifth 3. He’s already the hottest shooter on the floor, but the Warriors still managed to bungle a coverage and leave him wide open on the wing.
Just keep your eyes on Poole and Thompson at the top of the screen. They’re trying to navigate an off-ball screen and dive. Poole tries to switch and stay on Green. Thompson doesn’t want the switch and, even after, tries to re-switch it. This is the result. These kinds of breakdowns ruin runs and stem momentum.
On average, the Warriors committed 14.9 turnovers per game this season. That was the second-most in the NBA, behind only the Rocketswho went 20-62 with a full rotation of rookies and inexperience.
That’s always been baked into the Warriors’ experience. They’ve won three titles and been to five NBA Finals despite a persistent turnover problem. They’re up, 3-1, on the Nuggets even though they’ve committed 13, 16 and 17 turnovers in three of the four games. A few bad passes don’t mean they won’t rain enough 3s to easily advance beyond Denver.
But the Grizzlies are still the likely opponents waiting in the next round. They deploy the most disruptive defense in the NBA, forcing 18 turnovers per game. The attack will be fiercer and the margin for error slimmer. The Warriors must maintain their break-neck free-flowing pace, but — particularly if it’s Memphis — can’t commit these types of sloppy turnovers that only lead to easy points in the other direction.
The odd ATO
Tight playoff games often come down to one decision, one play, one key moment. The result was still in the balance with 33 seconds left. Kerr called a timeout and designed a play for the day’s most important possession to that point.
Instead of clearing it out for Curry, who had been skating past defenders and pouring in fourth-quarter points, or going to one of their favorite actions to get either Curry or Thompson an open shot, Kerr called for a lob over the top for Andrew Wiggins.
The Warriors correctly assumed a Wiggins screen would get the smaller Rivers on him and believed a quick attack was the best strategy because they still had time for a 2 for 1 — ensuring they could play defense after without fouling and still have time for another possession. But it materialized a whole lot worse than planned.
The cameras caught Jokic, from the bench, telling his teammates it was a “lob” before the even gave it to Porter referee. The Nuggets had sniffed it out. Porter’s pass wasn’t long enough. The Nuggets nailed a corner 3 on the next possession, which meant that errant lob was their last moment on offense when they were still in the game.
Kerr is typically one of the better coaches in the league on out-of-time play designs, from an efficiency standpoint. But he admitted this was an ill-fated strategy.
“I would like that play call back, frankly,” he said.
Steve Kerr on the late ATO lob turnover: “I would like that play call back frankly.” Was going for the quick 2-for-1 but it wasn’t there pic.twitter.com/EYhRHUP7mM
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 24, 2022
The quiet pool night
Poole scored 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting. That’s his lowest point total since late February. He looked out of sync and in too big of a hurry the entire game. As part of the universal praise for Poole recently, Green and Kerr have noted that the game seems to have “slowed down” for Poole. But he looked like the younger, sped-up version several times on Sunday.
This is an example. Poole darts out on the fastbreak after a steal, but instead of patiently attacking the backpedaling nuggets and using a streaking Jonathan Kuminga — quite capable of catching and hammering a transition dunk — Poole staggers and stumbles into a turnover.
Kerr said postgame he felt the Nuggets were more physical than they had been with Poole. Gordon started on him and roughed him up a bit. It’s part of the learning curve for Poole. This is his first playoff run. Not every performance will be spectacular. Some will be duds. The Warriors will be much more beatable when those duds occur.
(Photo of Draymond Green: AAron Ontiveroz / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)