The tone of Michael Malone’s pregame news conference before Game 3 was menacing. His Denver Nuggets had been spanked by the Warriors in Games 1 and 2 of this first-round NBA playoff series and his strategy was to talk tough and hope his guys got the message.
They did. The Nuggets spent Thursday evening banging and bumping and hooking various Warriors, even slinging a few to the floor. Denver played ugly, as requested.
It did not matter.
The Warriors didn’t so much fight back as they stayed resolute, giving and taking leads until they walked out of Ball Arena with a 118-113 victory that leaves them one win away from advancing to the Western Conference semifinals.
“These guys have been around the block a few times, so they’re not fazed by this stuff,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of veterans Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
The vets are battered and bruised. Andrew Wiggins, playing his eighth playoff game, had a rugged night, as did postseason newcomers Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II. But they, along with Otto Porter Jr., made enough big plays at crucial moments to prevail.
“I loved the environment, I loved the way that we responded,” Curry said. “In the first two games, everything kind of went our way. We had big leads and the crowd was behind us. It was nice to see how we responded to a game like tonight where we came out the gate really well. The first lineup really executed well, they made a run and we finished off the first half with a 10-point lead.
Golden State Warriors
“We knew they were going to come out with a punch in the second half and that's what they did and then how were we going to respond? I'm proud of the way that everybody played.”
The game featured 51 personal fouls, 25 by the Warriors and 26 against Denver. The Nuggets committed 11 fouls in the fourth quarter, a statistic that vividly illustrates their anxiety. This was their best performance and, perhaps, their only chance to prove they were ready to compete.
The game was slipping away, and so was the series.
“Obviously, frustration levels are high,” forward Aaron Gordon said. “We felt like we should've won that game, it'd be 2-1. It's a whole different series. But we're not done yet.”
The defiance within that last sentence is commendable, but the conviction rings hollow. If the Nuggets know the history, and no doubt most do, they realize no NBA team has recovered from a three-games-to-zero series deficit to win a postseason series.
Taking a 111-109 lead with 3:20 remaining, the Nuggets were on the verge of starting to climb out of a 2-0 series hole. Though the Warriors were convincing winners of Games 1 and 2, this was a classic clash, testing bodies and minds on both sides.
And the Warriors, with their decorated core, 14 championship rings among five players, won the battle of wills.
“Usually, if you’re up 2-0 and you get Game 3 on the road, you put yourself in pretty good position to get a sweep,” Green said. “Obviously, because of the numbers, you’re up 3-0. But it’s the mentality. When a team is down 2-0, they come out and they give you everything they’ve got in Game 3. If you’re able to take that punch and come out with a win, you go into Game 4, you’ve got to take a punch or two. But you’ve set yourself up well.”
Beaten soundly in two road games and taking an agonizing defeat at home, the Nuggets are reeling. Despite beating the Warriors three times in four regular-season games, they were the underdogs. They now know why.
“Did we make mistakes at times? Yes,” Malone said. “But I loved how we fought. We stayed with it, we got down, things were getting away from us a few times, we stayed with it, we stayed together, we kept fighting, we battled. You asked me pregame, what do I hope for? That's what I hoped for.
“I asked our team, come Sunday (Game 4), are we going roll over, or are we going to fight like hell and send this back to Golden State? That's my hope. If we fight like we did tonight, I'm going to walk off that court very proud of that group of guys in that locker room.”
Because of the way they lost Game 3, Game 4 will be even harder for the Nuggets. The Warriors now have four opportunities to take the series. They won’t need four. Or three. And probably not even two.