It looked like a flight back to Denver was in the cards for the Warriors Wednesday night.
The energy that the now-famously nameless, five-player lineup had conjured in the first part of this series was sapped. And old friend DeMarcus Cousins was hammering them in every non-Nikola Jokic minute.
Then, the Warriors turned to their own backup center — Gary Payton II — and all that energy came rushing back to lead them to a tough, 102-98 victory to close out the Denver Nuggets and secure their tickets to the second round.
Payton nailed a gigantic 3 with just over a minute to go in a semi-broken play where Draymond Green passed up an open layup and the ball cycled around to Payton at the top of the key.
He calmly knocked it in to put the Warriors up five and essentially seal the game.
In the fourth quarter alone, Payton had 10 points, was a perfect 4-of-4 from the field, with two 3’s, and tossed in three assists and one steal.
Steve Kerr talked about how Payton’s journey has shaped the kind of fearlessness he plays with:
Doesn’t seem to phased by anything. I guess when you’ve bounced around like he has, been in the G-League, played on ten-day contracts, never really found a home, there’s a lot more pressure in that than there is in playing in a high-stakes game.”
Payton said just like the rest of the fans, he was in awe of Curry late:
I was a witness. Really, I was a witness letting him cook. Create plays for him. Try to get him open looks and after that, you know what he does.”
And while that play will get all the highlights, it was the Warriors role player who was all over the plays in the clutch.
Payton subbed in with a little over three to minutes to go in the third quarter and didn’t see the bench again as Kerr could not take him off the floor.
He finished with 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and three big 3’s to go along with his usual scrappy defense.
Kerr couldn’t stop heaping praise on the young guard after the game:
I don’t know how to begin on that one. His defense in the fourth quarter was fantastic. That’s why I stayed with him. But then he started knocking down threes and getting to the rim for a couple lay-ups. I thought he was just a huge factor in the game and he deserved to stay out there with the way he was playing so we kept him out there the whole fourth, and he came through big time.”
Payton finished the game in place of Jordan Poole, who had his second straight dud of a performance finishing with just eight points, five fouls and was a team-worst minus-six.
A look around Chase Center minutes before tip revealed bunches of open seats.
The other two in-season Bay Area teams were battling just a few minutes away at Oracle Park, so parking lots were full and fans were late to arrive.
The Warriors players were late to arrive as well, as they showed up with a new starting lineup but all their old bad habits.
They fouled with reckless abandon and sent Gordon to the line in three of the games first five possessions.
It was ugly. And that’s exactly how the Nuggets wanted it.
Kerr said he thought that his team almost forgot what it takes to put a team away in the playoffs:
I think it’s been three years since we’ve been in the playoffs and you kind of forget how difficult close out games are and I think our guys felt that the entire way. I think we felt that playoff pressure for the first time in a few years, and our guys responded.”
With the Warriors constantly reaching, their rhythm was never able to build and with no rhythm, Golden State struggled to get any offense going, especially from their usually potent wings of Poole and Thompson.
The duo finished a combined 2-of-10 from 3 and 8-of-23 from the field, leaving the Warriors searching for any kind of offensive production.
Kerr thought that team was trying to do too much the first half, and that hampered their shot selection:
I thought we were really forcing shots the whole first half. Everybody was kind of anxious, trying to do it on their own a little bit. They shot 20 free throws in first half, too, so we were bringing the ball up the floor against their halfcourt defense which is excellent.”
The other problem was when they weren’t fouling, they were getting bullied on the offensive glass.
The Nuggets pulled in 14 offensive rebounds, with many coming when it looked like the Warriors were about to make some kind of run.
But a quick switch to a box-and-1 in the third, and Poole being sat in favor of Kevon Looney stopped the cascade off second chance opportunities and allowed the Warriors to finally gain some ground.
Green said the team kept harping on not fouling the whole game:
We got stops and stopped fouling. Entire game we kept talking about it: Stop fouling. And I’m not sure how many free throws they had through three quarters but sure had to be somewhere in the 25, 26 free throws. Once we stopped following, was able to get the game at our pace, it looked a lot more like Games 1 through 3, as opposed to Game 4.”
This was a game that teams with championship aspirations close out, and that’s exactly what Golden State did.
Green said that being back in the playoffs and winning, brings back memories of those past teams:
Special. Like I said the other day, it feels a lot more familiar than the last two years felt. That’s who we are. That’s why we’ve had the success that we’ve had. We know how to win and we know how to win playoff games. We put the work in and trust in each other, and the results show in that.”
But make no mistake, the warts are there for this team.
Before the world could come up with a nickname for this new ‘death lineup,’ its dominance had already faded. Just as the world was coronating Poole, he slipped back into his old habits.
Even with all that though, the Warriors gutted out a tough win to close out a plucky Nuggets team.
That’s what you’re going to have to do if you want to win a championship — something from which the Warriors now stand just 12 wins away.
The Warriors now get at least a couple days of rest as they await the winner of the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis is currently up 3-2, but have trailed big in two of those wins.