DENVER -- The great temptation in April is always to see huge import in the first game of any series, to declare it a defining moment around which all subsequent moments must adhere.
It is usually wrong. But in this case, in this town, with this odd matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, Saturday’s Game One might very well have told us what we need to know from here.
[Game 1 Instant Replay: Nuggets 97, Warriors 95]
Denver won, 97-95, because Andre Miller was the smartest and most effective player in a game that was played about 70 percent of expected pace. They did so without shooting well, while being outrebounded (in part because they had to play without force of manic nature Kenneth Faried) and while counterpunching with a team it has been expected to handle.
On the other hand, Golden State lost, 97-95, because Stephen Curry had a grisly night – yes, despite his incandescent game-tying three-pointer with 14.5 seconds left. And because they couldn’t guard Miller after seemingly eliminating the Nuggets’ other options. And finally, because David Lee (who had his own grisly game) left with a strained right hip flexor 27 seconds into the fourth quarter after being fouled by the peripatetic JaVale McGee.
In short, this series, which was supposed to be all about getting up and down the floor and pressuring the tempo with a siege of baskets, was won – and lost – because both teams were far better at taking away the other team’s resources than enhancing their own.
Put another way, who had Andre Miller has the player of the game? Who saw him at age 63, or whatever he is, scoring 28 points in 27 minutes, including the game-winning layup with 1.2 seconds left? Who saw the Warriors staying this close to the Nuggets with only one of their three offensive weapons, Klay Thompson, having a night worth savoring? Who saw them winning after committing 17 turnovers, 11 of them in the second half?
On the converse, who saw the Nuggets winning while being outrebounded by 10, outrebounded on the offensive boards by six, and getting so little of statistical note from anyone other than Miller?
Frankly, who saw this game go this way and, based on the suppositions each team entered this series with, can know what to believe in Game 2?
Well, there is Faried, who is expected to play Tuesday night and who makes such a significant difference on the glass. And there is Lee, who will get an MRI Sunday for his hip, and though nobody wanted to venture a guess on his availability for Tuesday, faces were long among Warrior brass. As in “Gee, we hope he can be ready for Game 3.”
Both coaches, Golden State’s Mark Jackson and Denver’s George Karl, speak in glowing terms of their teams’ resilience and ability to overcome small setbacks in search of the greater goal, but they both got here by establishing tone and force upon their opponents. They are punchers, not counterpunchers.
But Game 1 was all about counterpunching. It was about living with an uncomfortable tempo. It was about finding someone who could be relied on offensively, and though some folks might have guessed Thompson, nobody guessed Miller.
Most players merely had moments – Evan Fournier had six early points for Denver when the game fought to find its rhythm, but he ended with 11. Corey Brewer had seven points in the last three minutes of the third quarter when Denver extended its often non-existent lead to seven points, but he had only three points in his other nine shots. Andrew Bogut had an impressive third quarter but was otherwise ancillary to the proceedings, and was late getting over to discomfort Miller on the game-winning layup.
And Curry hit that seemingly killing trey, 24 seconds after being stripped by Ty Lawson (the last of his five turnovers) and stranded as Lawson went in for the breakaway layup that made it 95-92 with 35.9 seconds left.
In sum, Game 1 looked a lot like how the rest of this series is likely to play out. Not the high-octane, elegant, you-score—fast-so-I-can-score-faster basketball people crave in the spring, but one more face-to-the-belt-sander series where tough-mindedness and learning to do without determines who advances and who recedes.
“Would I have liked to have had an easier game? Hell, yeah,” Karl said afterward. “But playoff basketball is not about easy games. It just doesn’t happen unless you have a totally lopsided situation.”
This is not that, at least not yet. Both teams retreat to their corners knowing they could have won, and could have been badly shamed. More went wrong than right. Punches were countered. And now injuries are helping define this series.
Pretty? You want pretty? Try Oklahoma City-Houston. What you saw Saturday from Denver-Golden State is probably definitive. Not necessarily the results, but the process. The process is going to be very very hard indeed.