Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry chose their words carefully.
“You look at them as one of the elite teams,” Durant said of the Nuggets following Warriors shootaround Tuesday morning as he lobbed compliment after compliment Denver’s way. Five minutes later, Curry faced the same throng of cameras and followed suit. “It’s a big game,” he said. “Two great teams going at it.”
The two-time defending champs executed a regular season coup d’etat on their Western Conference challengers straight out of their championship playbook, disposing of Denver in an orderly and systematic fashion. Golden State carefully gassed the Nuggets up in the morning only to hand them their worst defeat since 2014 seven hours later.
Paul Millsap says he saw it coming.
“They built us up all day long in the media. Then come out and win by 30. It was a setup,” Millsap told BSN Denver. “We’re a young team, and we’re still learning the mental aspect of the game and where we’re at in the standings. So we’ll get better at it.”
“I think it was their intent to come out and send a message to us. It was one of the things I told the guys before the game. ‘We haven’t been in this situation before where we’re the first seed and we’ve got a target on our backs and guys are coming after us to kick us off the top spot.’ We’ve got to be ready for that. We’ve got to know that going into games.”
The Warriors had heard the hype rolling off the tops of the Rocky Mountains for the last two months. Nuggets this, Nuggets that. Nikola Jokic is an MVP candidate. Denver is the next Western Conference titan built in Golden State’s image and set to rise from the lottery depths to eventually take the Warriors’ Western Conference throne. Many of those takes are legitimate, but Durant, Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green aren’t ready to relinquish their crown quite yet.
The Warriors’ day-long gameplan was champion versus challenger 101: stroke your opponents’ ego, give them a bit of confidence and then pounce. Golden State got out to an 11-2 lead less than three minutes into the first quarter. Soon, their advantage was 13 points and then 15. Before the sellout crowd at Pepsi Center could catch their collective breath, Golden State led 51-38 after the first quarter. The Warriors shot 19-25 from the field in the period and converted on 10 of their 14 threes. It was as close to perfect offensive basketball as you’ll see.
Some of the Nuggets looked shellshocked at what they had just witnessed.
“It was a big game, especially for us to see where we’re at, knowing that they’re going to come out and give their best going forward,” Millsap said. “Looking at the big picture, these are game we’ve got to be better in. At least make it close, to know that we have a chance to beat them.”
“We just thought, I guess, that it was going to be easy,” said Monte Morris.
Denver flipped the page Wednesday morning and watched film of all 21 threes that the Warriors converted in their rout. Nuggets coach Michael Malone called his team’s three-point defense and the fact that Denver surrendered 51 first-quarter points, an NBA record in the shot clock era, “unacceptable” and “embarrassing,” while tipping his hat to the two-time defending champs for their offensive firepower.
“We’ll play that team two more times in the regular season and hopefully more after that,” Malone said.
Defensively, the Nuggets will try and stop the bleeding Thursday at home versus the Bulls, the biggest game of the year per Malone, because it’s the next game on Denver’s calendar. The Nuggets’ defense has been gradually taking on water over the last couple of months falling to 10th overall in defensive efficiency after their latest loss, a solid ranking in a macro view, but alarming when examining the Nuggets’ recent trends on that end of the floor.
Denver was the third-best defense in the league over the first month of the regular season, but since the Nuggets’ Nov. 30 win over the Trail Blazers, Denver ranks 25th in defensive efficiency.
The Nuggets’ offense, however, has been trending in the opposite direction. Denver is scoring 113.0 points per 100 possessions since Nov. 30, two points per 100 better than the rate they scored at over the first month of the season.
“I think what’s happening is we’re allowing our offense to dictate our defense,” Malone said. “Early in the year, our offense was struggling, our defense was great. Now our offense is clicking, guys are making shots, and we’re not defending at the same level we were.”
“With limited practice time, it’s hard to kick those habits, and it seems like we’re going back the opposite way with our habits. But we’ll start heading in the right direction,” Millsap said. “We’ve got to get back to taking defense seriously. Get back to communicating, talking to each other, just having a defensive approach to the game that teams are not going to come in, especially at home and score on us. I think we’ll get back to that.”
Millsap is Denver’s defensive captain and the Nuggets’ traffic cop on that end of the floor. He declared at training camp in September that Denver could be a top-5 defense in the league, something that held true for the first month of the year. He’s confident Denver can get back to that level because it raised its play on that end of the floor for a significant amount of time already this season.
“For me, it’s all mental. It’s always mental. It’s just a mindset. We’ve got to stick to our habits. Defensively, at the beginning of the year, training camp, we were really good at keeping that mindset,” Millsap said. “As the months go on, we’re steady, then declining. Limited practice, limited shootarounds, we’ve just got to get back to doing it.”