OAKLAND -- Stephen Curry and Ty Lawson have decided in tandem to take this Western Conference quarterfinal by its throat, and one reverts to the other only when their grips get tired.
So it was again in Game Three, which the Warriors won by outlasting the Denver Nuggets, 110-108. Lawson was the best single player, with 35 points and 10 assists, but Curry was the most influential with 29 points, 10 assists and an ankle that slowly but surely healed itself.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Warriors 110, Nuggets 108]
Indeed, when you broaden the view to include Andre Miller in Game One, Klay Thompson in Games One and Two, and Jarrett Jack in Games Two and Three, you see a game that is being run almost entirely from the outside in.
And yet, the subtleties that may tip the balance from one side to the next are being found elsewhere – in the paint, when balls don’t arc gracefully and reverses don’t happen. It is where the Warriors are clearly winning this series.
The Warriors, the best defensive rebounding team in the league, are owning the Nuggets, the best offensive rebounding team in the league. Andrew Bogut has essentially eradicated almost all signs of Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee, the Nuggets’ big men. They won Game Two with absurd shooting, but stayed in Game One by outrebounding the Nuggets by 11, and Friday night they did so by eight.
For the series, the Warriors are winning that battle, 133-105, which makes it not so much a battle as a hinder-kicking. Worse for the superior athletes across the Denver front, they are not dominating the points in the paint statistic as much as they should be, thereby turning a strength into an even match. The Warriors lost Game One there, but have held their own in their two victories, making Denver win with something other than its strength.
Bogut has been simply indomitable in all the quiet ways. Neither Koufos nor McGee had a defensive rebound Friday night, and Kenneth Faried, the power forward who was missing in Game One and essentially so in Game Two, had less of an impact than his 15 points and seven rebounds would suggest.
But most damaging, the Warriors, the jump shooters’ friend, got 52 points from inside the paint Friday night, meaning that they were not only penetrating but finishing inside the Nuggets’ Vaunted trap.
And therein lies the great disconnect of this series. Curry and Lawson have been incandescent throughout, and the guards in general have been the stars of this taut-as-a-drumhead series, but the Warriors have won the battle of the bigs, even without David Lee.
This is a curious development, and it runs counter to the obvious view that the deafening chorus of 19,596 provided the Dubs. They anticipate Curry and to a lesser extent Thompson. They revel in Jack, even on nights like last night when he thinks he wasn’t effective.
But the difference in any series is always found in the one area where one team is owning the other, and that is down low. Bogut has found a competitive meanness in his game that he hasn’t had the chance to show since Milwaukee, and the Nuggets have not responded in kind, or even come close. And though he has not been alone (Harrison Barnes has been an effective small four, and Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green have put their bodies to the service of the corps in their own ways), he sets the tone in the shadow of the backboard, a tone Denver has yet to match.
Will it play out in this way? That remains a very open question. But while Curry and Lawson, who shared the same draft class and are likely always to be compared with each other, get the looks, the Warriors have command of the series based on preventing the Nuggets from getting anything after the first shot. This makes basketball measurably easier, even more so than a loud crowd that knows how to make its own noise without prompting.
And however this series ends, no matter what shape it takes, Denver will know where it has failed, at least so far. In the part of the floor where both teams claim to be so adept, and only one actually has been.