Examining the downfall of the Warriors in their struggle against the Nuggets with a numerical disadvantage

The Nuggets beat them at their own numbers-disadvantage game.

Let’s take a time machine to one of this dynasty’s highs — back in 2022, during the Golden State Warriors’ improbable championship run that solidified Steph Curry’s legacy.

With a minute left in Game 3 of their first round series against the Denver Nuggets and protecting a precarious three-point lead, Curry called his shot in Ruthian fashion:

Been re-watching the playoffs and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but…Watch Steph Curry do the Night Night “playcall” directed toward the bench, before he attacks Jokić in spread PnR and scores — after which he does the Night Night again

Whipping out the night-night before scoring a layup over Nikola Jokić to extend the lead to five — and ultimately winning the game — is stuff of legends. It goes to show Curry’s caliber as a player and his place in the pantheon of all-time greats who show a similar knack for “psycho” behavior, as myself and others have described it in the past.

But more than just the general vibe and narrative of the shot above, I want to focus on how Curry was able to get the shot. It wasn’t from a complex half-court set, nor was it from one of the Warriors’ patented motion-offense concepts that generated the bucket.

It was a simple “Angle” ballscreen with a spread floor that allowed Curry to go inside and lay it in. More importantly, it was Curry forcing the switch onto Jokić to draw him into the action and virtually outspeed him.

Draymond Green’s role in all of it mustn’t be ignored. He was able to set a solid screen on Aaron Gordon — guarding Curry — that gave Jokić no choice but to switch onto Curry and defend his drive. While Jokić is far from the compromised defender many are painting him out to be, he’s still slower compared to Curry and isn’t particularly known for his rim protection.

The operative phrase when it comes to being able to force a switch such as this is “screen navigation.” Despite Jokić trying to meet Curry up high in what is typically called a “soft” hedge or a screen-level step-up, success in that coverage entails that the on-ball defender be able to get around the screen and recover toward the ballhandler.

Gordon is a capable defender, but screen navigation isn’t his forte. Which places Jokić on an island against Curry and unable to stop the layup from happening.

Fast forward to tonight’s game: a 119-103 shellacking by the Nuggets, who are the defending champions and have much better personnel to execute coverages on defense. What hasn’t changed is the coverage they’re playing on Curry whenever Jokić is brought into the action: a “soft” hedge/screen-level meetup.

But peep at how different it is this time around:

It must first be pointed out that the Warriors’ personnel is also different. Instead of Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson (coming off the bench) on the floor to spread things out, it’s Jonathan Kuminga (not considered a spacing threat by opponents), Brandin Podziemski (whose outside shot comes and goes) and a version of Andrew Wiggins who is shooting nearly five percentage points worse on threes this season than in 2022.

It’s not exactly the kind of spacing personnel that will instill fear upon opponents, especially the Nuggets, who have seen this same Curry-Green pick-and-roll dance over and over in previous seasons and — under the guidance of head coach Mike Malone — have certainly developed countermeasures against it.

Furthermore, they have much better screen-navigating personnel — namely, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Unlike Gordon in 2022, Caldwell-Pope is able to slither his way over Green’s screen, which allows Jokić to step up comfortably on the “soft” hedge to put two on the ball against Curry. Typically, the Warriors’ response to this is to get the ball to Green on the short roll and execute a patented 4-on-3 sequence in which Green either lobs or dumps it off to a cutter along the baseline or finds an open shooter on the perimeter.

But the Nuggets blow it up:

Not worried about Kuminga’s ability to shoot the ball, Gordon willingly helps off to cover Green’s roll. Curry — seeing that Kuminga is open — whips the pass to the corner. Kuminga attacks Gordon’s closeout (which is the correct decision), but the rest of the Nuggets’ defense doesn’t budge. Jokić is able to recover back to Green to take away potential dump pass, while kickouts to Podziemski and Wiggins are well covered due to the lack of an advantage beforehand. Jamal Murray stuffs Wiggins’ drive, which turns into a Caldwell-Pope transition three on the other end.

Even while Jokić wasn’t involved in the direct action, the Nuggets still opted to mix in aggressive coverages against Curry, along with occasional switches. But it was the aggressive ones that caught my eye — particularly on this possession.

Pay attention to Jokić here:

Not particularly worried about Green’s ability to score from floater range — and his willingness, or lack thereof, for that matter — Jokić slightly stunts at Green to draw out the lob for Gary Payton II. Jokić tracks down the lob and deflects it, which blows up the 2-on-1.

Even on off-ball actions targeting Jokić, the big man was able to snuff them out and blow them up:

On the scripted flare screen for Curry, Jokić gets his hands on the ball and runs the break. In stark contrast to how he defended Green on the short-roll possession, Green gets baited into committing against Jokić due to the threat of him scoring from floater range. Once Green commits, Jokić calmly places the lob to Zeke Nnaji to complete the 2-on-1.

The Nuggets were able to beat the Warriors in their own numbers-advantage game:

Off of their patented “Elbow” set, the Nuggets flow into a Murray-Jokić pick-and-roll, Two go to the ball against Murray, which generates the backline numbers advantage for the Nuggets. Since Jokić is a threat to score from the middle of the paint, Kuminga is compelled to step up to him — but it only serves to open the lob to Gordon.

In stark contrast to two years ago, the Nuggets are in a stratosphere currently unreachable by this iteration of the Warriors. They executed near perfectly on both ends of the floor and constantly took away what the Warriors wanted to do. Curry struggled (20 points on 6-of-19 shooting, 1-of-10 on threes, 44.4% TS), and the Nuggets’ defense had plenty to do with that. While Jokić has better personnel surrounding him this time, he is still the one who makes everything tick for the Nuggets: 32 points on 13-of-24 shooting and 62.1% TS — to go along with 16 rebounds and 16 assists.

Did the Warriors leave some things on the table tonight? For sure — but it was also a simple matter of the Nuggets being the much better team this time around.

The Warriors were the measuring stick not too long ago. This time, they’re the ones having to measure themselves against the current cream of the crop — and they didn’t live up to standards.

Which is a truth that fans may have to swallow and accept, despite the run of wins that preceded this latest setback.

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