DENVER (AP) — The Denver Nuggets left behind a hole in the wall just inside the visiting locker room at Oracle Arena, courtesy of frustrated forward Kenneth Faried’s size 16 sneaker.
Escaping the hole they’re in against the Golden State Warriors won’t be so easy.
The sixth-seeded Warriors have won three straight games since losing All-Star David Lee, the league’s leader in double-doubles, to a season-ending hip injury in the series opener.
They’re one win away from closing out George Karl’s third-seeded band of speedsters who rolled into the playoffs on a 23-3 run and an NBA franchise-best 57-win season that included 23 straight home wins.
Denver, which is facing the prospect of getting bounced from the first round for the ninth time in 10 years, had designs on a deep playoff run like they had in 2008-09 but have been outsmarted, outhustled, outshot and outrebounded this entire series.
Only Andre Miller’s twisting layup with a second left in Game 1 stands between the Nuggets and a four-game sweep. Golden State coach Mark Jackson surprised Karl with what was essentially a four-guard starting lineup for Game 2 and the Warriors haven’t missed Lee — or many shots, for that matter — ever since.
The Warriors were 3-18 when playing without Lee over the last three regular seasons but are 3-0 without him in the playoffs as Jackson’s rotations have messed up Karl’s matchups and many maneuvers.
“We’re not doing things right and they’re doing everything right,” Miller said.
Andrew Bogut’s pre-eminence in the post after an injury-filled regular season in which he didn’t play in any of Golden State’s four games against Denver has been among the biggest surprises of the series.
“He’s brought a defensive physicality to their front line,” Karl said.
The Nuggets have found no answers for Stephen Curry and the rest of the uncannily accurate Warriors, whose barrage of 3-point baskets, high shooting percentages and surprising dominance in the paint and on the glass have sapped the Nuggets’ energy along with their vaunted transition game.
“When they come down and just hit 3s when you’ve just crossed halfcourt, you can’t scheme around that. You can’t stop that,” Faried said. “We just have to find a way to not let them do that.”
When someone suggested in the aftermath of Denver’s 115-101 loss Sunday night that the good news is the Nuggets were heading back to the Pepsi Center for Game 5 Tuesday night, the flustered forward retorted, “There’s no good news.”
That about sums it up for Denver, which is on the verge of yet another early exit from the playoffs.
This is the Nuggets’ 10th straight trip to the postseason but they’ve advanced past the first round just once during that decade.
Karl’s counting on the homecourt helping the Nuggets snap out of their funk, noting “it usually takes one game to turn around your confidence.”
Exhibit A in that argument is Golden State’s Game 2 win when they handed the Nuggets their first home loss in three months, then rode that wave of momentum to two wins in Oakland.
“We do got them at home and I hope our crowd can get as loud as their crowd was,” Faried said. “It was deafening. You really can’t hear much and their crowd really gets behind them. I respect that. Our crowd really gets behind us when we get going. Hopefully we can feed off ours and show them a thing or two.”
A Nuggets win might also finally put some pressure on the Warriors, who have relished the underdog role so far while showing not a bit of nerves despite being the playoff newbies they are.
Faried has an idea of what has to change Tuesday night, besides the venue.
“Everything,” he said. “We just need to throw everything out the book and come back with a better game plan. Right now we’re not playing Nuggets basketball. We’re not looking for the open man. It just looked bad out there.”
Curry is leading the charge for Golden State. He has swished 18 3-pointers, more than any player in NBA history in the first four playoff games of his career. And he scored 22 of his career playoff-high 31 points in the decisive third quarter Sunday night.
By no means is he a one-man show, though.
“I’ll probably start on him the next game,” Andre Iguodala said. “We’ll try that. But when you look at it, he’s not the only one hurting us. He’s making a lot of plays, making some great shots. Give him credit but Jarrett Jack’s playing really well for them. Bogut was incredible for them in the first quarter. (Harrison) Barnes has hurt us, as well. It’s not just one guy.
“Our team defense needs to improve and we have to trust one another. It comes down to the basics of basketball.”
Curry keeps springing free no matter who’s guarding him, and Karl said he’s not ruling anything out for Game 5: “I think everybody’s an option. That’s the way it has to be when you’re down 3-1. Two minutes here, two minutes there, you have to be ready. Whatever buttons we push, everybody has to be ready to go.”
While Faried had a heavy wrap around his left ankle and foot when he walked through the hotel lobby Monday, Curry is sporting a puffy right eye, which was accidentally poked by Corey Brewer late in the last game, to go with a sprained left ankle of his own.
“It’s the playoffs. You don’t have time for excuses,” said Curry, who got a pain injection in his ankle before tip-off. “As long as you can play and suit up you got to take advantage of the opportunity.”
There’s no reason to think Curry will be hampered Tuesday night.
“I saw him in the lounge, and he’s doing fine,” Jackson said Monday. “Obviously, he’s not going to be doing much today, but it’s important for him to get treatment, get ready and be ready for tomorrow night because we certainly need him.”
Jackson knows a close-out game with a young team is going to be an adventure, and the Warriors are certainly expecting the Nuggets’ best shot in Game 5.
“We have to treat it as if it’s a Game 7 situation because that’s what they’re going to (do),” Jack said. “They have a great coach. George Karl is going to have them prepared too, so we’re anticipating the biggest fight of the season we’ve had all year on our hands.”