DENVER — Ahead of Thursday night’s Game 3, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone vowed to “go down swinging” in the NBA playoffs against the Golden State Warriors while trying to find some fight within his team.
The Nuggets, after being pummeled in the first two games of the first round, showed the most fight and life they’ve had all series, and yet it wasn’t enough as the Warriors squeaked out a 118-113 victory in Denver to go up 3-0 in the series.
“You have to feel this kind of adversity and pressure on the road,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “You’ve got to execute. It’s good for our team to have this experience and come through because we are going to be feeling it again, especially on the road.”
Added Draymond Green: “When a team is down 2-0, they come out and give you everything they got in that Game 3. If you are able to take that punch and come out with a win, you go out in Game 4 and you got to take a punch or two, but you set yourself up well.”
There were several plays that could qualify as the game-sealing play for Golden State on Thursday night.
With 34.7 seconds left and the Warriors up five, Green forced Nikola Jokic into his fifth turnover of the night — the fourth forced by Green — when he tipped the ball from Jokic’s grip as the reigning MVP tried backing him down.
“On the first dribble when he hit me, I felt like I still had good inside positioning,” Green said. “And then he took the second one and it was far away from his body. I’m already thinking right there, ‘If he takes on more dribble, I’m stabbing at it.'”
At that moment, Green had five fouls. When asked if that made him nervous, Kerr said, “Yeah. But I’m not going to take him out.”
Green said he didn’t hesitate to go for the steal and risk getting his sixth foul.
“That’s money time,” he said. “That’s when you’ve got to dig deep. You cant play the last four minutes of the game worried about fouling out. I’m going against Joker. I have to be willing to use all six of my fouls at some point in the game. … But I can’t start playing timid because I pick up my fifth foul.”
Although Green has excelled at his defensive assignment on Jokic this series, he admitted that Jokic “got the best of me” in Game 3.
Jokic had his best game of the series Thursday night, finishing with 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting to go with 18 rebounds, five assists and three steals. With Green as the primary defender, Jokic had two turnovers and went 8-of-13 from the floor. Overall this series, Jokic has shot 13-of-36 (36%) from the field when guarded by Green compared with 21-of-30 against every other Warriors defender.
Green has also forced six turnovers when defending Jokic. That is tied for the most turnovers by a player against a single defender this postseason. Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant has committed six turnovers when guarded by Boston’s Jayson Tatum.
“He’s got so much confidence defensively,” Kerr said. “He knows how to use his gifts. He’s incredibly quick and strong and he knows the advantage he has using his speed and leverage. Jokic is so difficult to handle. He gets to wherever he wants, and once he gets to his spot and turns and shoots, he’s got incredible touch.”
When thinking about the play that likely sealed the win for the Warriors in Game 3, Malone said it isn’t Green’s steal that comes to mind but a play that happened about a minute and 45 seconds earlier.
With the Nuggets trailing 112-111, Stephen Curry pulled up for a 3-point shot several feet behind the arc. It rimmed out, but as Jeff Green, Will Barton and Monte Morris circled the paint for the rebound, the Warriors’ Andrew Wiggins flew in to grab the offensive board.
“That was just one where you play good defense and the shot is taken and you kind of get guys just ball watching,” Malone said. “And it’s got to be a ball that we come up with in that type of game.”
Wiggins tossed the ball back to Curry, who found a wide-open Jordan Poole in the corner. Poole passed up the open shot and finished with a reverse layup instead, putting the Warriors up by three with 2:15 to go.
Poole called Wiggins’ rebound a “huge” play.
“We don’t get that bucket if he doesn’t get that rebound,” Poole said. “Wiggs came up huge.”
Wiggins had checked back into the game with 4:27 left, which Kerr said was always part of the game plan. Up until that point in the fourth, Kerr kept Andre Iguodala in the game because he had made “several good plays in a row.” But as soon as the game shifted and the Warriors knew they needed more offense, they went back to Wiggins.
It was a move that quickly paid off. Wiggins hit a go-ahead 3 with 3:05 left, putting Golden State up for good. Kerr called it the “shot of the game.”
The Warriors also got big performances down the stretch from Curry, Poole and Klay Thompson, who finished with 27, 27 and 26 points, respectively, making them the first Warriors trio to each have 25 points in a playoff game since Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals (Curry, Thompson and Durant).
Poole is also the first player in the shot-clock era to average 25 points and an 80% effective field goal percentage through the first three games of a postseason.
“The fun part is seeing Jordan in this for the first time,” Kerr said. “He continues to play well. This is his third straight playoff game where he’s really done a great job knocking down shots and making plays.”
The Warriors have now won a road game in each of their past 24 playoff series (a league record), which is every series Curry, Thompson and Green have played together.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Green said. “There is no better feeling than going into an opposing team’s building and you can shut the crowd up. It doesn’t get much better than that. There is no better feeling in sports than going into a hostile environment, their crowd into it — yelling, screaming — and ultimately you come out with the win.”