Playoff pressure finds whatever flaws a team has and expands them into debilitating cracks. If a team can’t shoot well from range, that’s what the opponent will force them to do. If a team has a weak defender or two, that’s who the opposing offense will attack.
An airtight game plan, fully adhered to by everyone, sometimes can provide a patch. Let just one player not be fully vested in the overall strategy, though, and the patch itself suddenly has a leak.
I was told coming into the series that the Nuggets were a tight-knit group, that they enjoyed spontaneously going out, as a team, for dinner. (Benihana, apparently, is one of their particular favorites.) From the outside, they looked it. They played an interchangeable switching, trapping defense. They had six players average double-figures in scoring. They rebounded by committee as well. They didn’t have a single All-Star and no one could quite pinpoint their go-to scorer. Even their point guards, Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, traded off running the fourth-quarter offense.
[RELATED: Warriors hold off Nuggets to advance]
But they did not look or sound like a cohesive group as their first-round series with the Warriors unfolded. Near the end, reserves could be heard grumbling that the starters weren’t pulling their weight. Floor leaders could be heard questioning the coaching staff’s strategy. Young players could be seen huddling and talking while older players had their own caucus on the other side of the room.
They then played like it.
The Warriors, conversely, never turned on each other. The closest they came to unrest was in the midst of a poor first half, rookie Draymond Green shouted at his teammates, “How’s someone going to want a Game 6 more than us?” Or maybe when the Nuggets trapped Stephen Curry and he was forced to call timeout, angrily bouncing the ball and glaring at center Andrew Bogut for not moving into a position where Curry could lob him the ball.
That’s what the playoffs do. They test a team’s balance. Its versatility. And, most definitely, its chemistry.
Green and Bogut played major roles in closing out the Nuggets Thursday night at Oracle Arena because of another tried-and-true playoff maxim: smart beats fast.
The Nuggets won 10 more games than the Warriors during the regular season, because they had a track squad’s worth of speedy athletes, including unusually fast big men in Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee.
But what the Warriors proved is that the Nuggets weren’t nearly as good if forced to consistently execute halfcourt sets to get baskets. They had precious few players capable of creating a shot for someone else with a deft pass. They also weren’t good at sustaining their defensive effort for an entire 24-second shot clock. Time and again, throughout the series, Warriors coach Mark Jackson told his team, “We can get whatever we want down there,” pointing at the offensive end of the floor. He spent far more of his time tightening up their defense, which primarily required loading up the paint and covering for each other when one of those Denver track stars slipped past the Warrior defending him.
No one had been able to do that during the regular season, especially in Denver, because the season comes fast and furious and it requires time and special planning to come up with a way to consistently smother a team with as many interchangeable parts as the Nuggets. But the playoffs afforded the Warriors that time.
I know, I know -- it’s audacious to suggest a team that committed nine fourth-quarter turnovers, including four in the final 83 seconds, the way the Warriors did, is smart. So let’s just say they were smarter. In any case, it’s no accident two of their brightest basketball minds had a huge impact in the pivotal Game 6 victory Thursday night. Both Green and Bogut made play after play by simply anticipating where they needed to be and getting there. Green had more rebounds off the bench (10) than the Nuggets’ three reserves had combined (8). Bogut, conversely, isn’t nearly as fast or long as McGee, but he had more than twice as many rebounds (21). Perhaps most important, he had three assists, which is three more than McGee, Faried and back-up center Kosta Koufos had together.
The playoff pressure also brought into clear view the Warriors’ flaw: passing the ball under duress. It’s been an issue all season and it nearly forced them back to Denver for a Game 7. They’ve survived despite it. Rest assured the second round and the San Antonio Spurs will make the Warriors prove they can collectively scheme their way to hiding it again. It’s what the playoffs, and the teams in them, do.