Did the Warriors win an “upset” over perception, or did they actually beat a better team? After watching the series and reflecting upon it, I’d conclude that Golden State was only a nominal underdog, not an actual one. The Warriors sans David Lee should beat the Gallo-less Nuggets. Were this series played out again, I’d pick the Warriors to take it 60%-70% of the time.
Forgive me for dwelling on the past as we’re supposed to immediately start previewing Spurs-Dubs. It’s just that Golden State’s first round victory continues to interest me, continues to place me in the homerish position of defending GSW’s status as rightful winner. They beat six consecutive Vegas spreads, with little market adjustment to how the series was unfolding. As Denver’s season lay in ruins, some observers blamed randomness for the destruction. I’ve had this argument on Twitter with a few people, and with Matt Moore of CBS, with whom I respectfully disagreed on the fortune factor. Golden State did not beat Denver on account of a shooting hot streak; Denver bequeathed a hot streak unto Golden State with typically absent perimeter defense.
The Denver Nuggets had a bad three-point defense all season (gave up the second most threes per game, right behind Charlotte) and the Warriors shoot the best percentage from downtown. Further helping Golden State’s cause, the Nuggets shoot poorly, bailing out GSW’s shaky, Denver-esque three-point defense. So Denver played to GSW’s strength and couldn’t take advantage of GSW’s weakness. Perhaps the Nuggets aren’t a worse team than the Warriors in terms of how they’d do against other playoff competition, but against Golden State? Yep, they’re fighting uphill.
In the first 4 games of the series, Curry “got loose” (George Karl’s term) for many an open three. That much is well documented, and it was expected by anyone who’d watched both teams closely this season. Denver’s point guards are complete liabilities against three-point shooters. Ty Lawson’s too short to contest shots, and Andre Miller either can’t move or doesn’t bother.
What people couldn’t foresee was how Denver also ceded threes to the rookie duo of Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. That Barnes shot well isn’t much of a shock. Green, on the other hand, surprised some people. While I’ll admit that Green’s 6-of-12 was anomalous given his .209 three-point shooting this year, he was also about as wide open as you’d expect a .209 three-point shooter to be. That’s fine and well, the Nuggets aren’t obligated to cover a shooter with his track record. The problem was that they guarded Harrison Barnes as though he was Draymond Green.
Harrison Barnes can actually hit an open three, and the Nuggets gave him a steady diet of them. Below, I’ve taken a snap shot of every three-pointer Barnes made this series, all 13 of them. The only time he faces anything close to a closeout is when the diminutive Ty Lawson takes a flail.
As Denver scattered to cover Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, players like Barnes and Draymond Green got just this open. With David Lee out, GSW spread the floor 4-out, ratcheting up their total three-point attempts to 24.5 per game from their regular season average of 19.9, while still hitting 40% of the tries. The stretched (and often trapping) Denver D also opened up easy opportunities for dump-offs to Andrew Bogut, who shot 63.2% in the series.
I understand how people can point to the final shooting results as inherently flukey. Barnes shot 40.6% from three! Green shot 50%! What luck! But merely citing the number is to act as though the defense played is meaningless–as though you’re allowed to barely try and claim “variance” when the shots fall. On nearly all their made threes, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green were facing what might as well have been a high school defense. In Green’s case, he was open for a reason. You can defend the lack of defending, while also pointing out that Denver gave Draymond every opportunity to find the stroke that eluded him this season. In Barnes’ case, Denver was just spotting points to Golden State. Harrison faced a decent close-out on 4 of his 32 three-point attempts. The rest were essentially nationally televised shooting practice. Even a rookie will put up numbers if you neglect to guard him at all.
Even an average regular season team will beat a great one if the conditions are right. The Nuggets were a prototypical regular season performer, between the altitude advantage, depth, and pace that caught unprepared teams off-guard. In the playoffs, teams better acclimate to the altitude, and depth matters less. Subjectively, Denver was hurt by a lack of offensive structure (Karl’s style is more improvisational) and yes, the lack of a star who forces consistent strategic concessions over a series.
On a certain level, it is shocking to watch a 57-win team lose to a 47-win team. Chalking it all up to luck is to learn the wrong lesson, though. The lesson is that the regular season doesn’t tell us all we need to know about the postseason. It can greatly inform our expectations–for instance, I expect San Antonio to easily handle Golden State based on what both teams have done this year. The information is useful, but a total reliance on aggregate record and point differential is simplistic. Teams aren’t the same over the course of a season. They go through lulls, players get injured, new strategies are tinkered with. Stars play less, scrubs play more. There are a myriad of factors that explain why it’s foolish to base all expectations on record and point differential. So, coming off a series in which the “underdog” had the best player and best big man, we should probably question our process just a bit.