DENVER – When the buzzer sounded, and the commanding 3-0 series lead over the Denver Nuggets was secure, Stephen Curry had one person front of mind: Andrew Wiggins. Having spent the final defensive possession on the bench, he made a beeline from the sidelines, flexing and roaring towards his teammate.
After pointing to the far-left corner of the court, acknowledging the biggest shot of the game, Curry bear-hugged Andrew Wiggins at half court.
“Did you see his smile?” Curry said.
In 2013, on this same court in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors’ trio of stars won their first road playoff game. Curry had 30 points and 13 assists, including a drive-and-kick to Klay Thompson for a dagger 3-pointer from the left corner as the Warriors shocked the favored Nuggets. Being in this arena, where it all began, was nostalgic for the Warriors’ superstar, and it’s the reason he understood the significance of what went down here nine years later. The new Warriors were baptized by fire into the Warriors’ tradition.
That’s what made Thursday’s 118-113 win over the host Nuggets so fulfilling. Not just because it extended the Warriors’ record streak. They have now won a road game in 24 consecutive playoff series. In every postseason series they’ve played, Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green have gone into a hostile environment and come out with a win at least once. Andre Iguodala has been part of 22 of them.
But the tradition continued because the new guys around showed them mettle worthy of the legacy. The Warriors have Denver in a stranglehold because more than just the Hall of Famers showed they can handle the moment, the pressure, the adversity.
Wiggins, the veteran who changed his stripes with Golden State, won his first road playoff game by showing some of the gamer mentality required to run with the champions.
In what was mostly a forgettable game for Wiggins, crunch time brought out a side of him that made his future Hall of Fame teammates proud. His 3-pointer from the left corner – the same corner where Thompson put out the lights on their first road win years ago – put the Warriors back forward, 112-111, with 3:05 left. He had the same shot 33 seconds earlier but missed. This time, after Denver had taken the lead, the Warriors needed it.
Wiggins took his time. He loves the left corner 3, but this one came with the weight of the series on the line. And he drilled it.
“Shot of the game,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
Even Gary Payton II was huge off the bench, especially in the first half when Denver was rolling. His defense is why he’s on the floor. But the pressure of the stage seemed to enhance his shooting stroke.
Conventional wisdom says role players tend to shine at home while the stars dominate on the road. But in his first road playoff game, Payton made all four of his shots, including three from deep, making the Nuggets pay for leaving him wide open.
“Everybody’s not made for the playoffs,” Green said. “You look around the league, everybody’s just not cut out for the playoffs. You know GP is showing that (he is) with his toughness and with the mindset that he has. A
“You gotta give credit to guys who show up in the playoffs because this is just not a normal thing around this league. You look around and some guys that you think are guys are not guys in the playoffs. “
Jordan Poole is looking like a guy in these playoffs. He is turning out to be a reincarnation of the young Warriors. Same unshakeable confidence. The same resolve not deterred by struggles and mistakes. Same shot-making expertise with a propensity for making the big ones.
He had 27 points on 13 shots in his first road playoff game. He would’ve had 30 had he not uncharacteristically missed three free throws. He got the Warriors off to a good start, seemed to stall a few Nuggets runs with timely shots and isn’t the least bit shy in close games. He now has 86 points in 42 shots in his first three playoff games.
After the game, several members of the Warriors’ organization were rolling their eyes at how good Poole is. Everything he’s showing says he’s built just like his vets.
“Just being out there with those guys, late in the game and in that moment, was extremely special,” Poole said. “Because you get to see how locked in and how focused they are offensively and defensively. How everything matters. Just to see guys make big shots and make big plays, have laser focus… They allow me just to be me and fit right in with those guys. So it was special. “
They were once like Poole. Young and quick. The brightest of futures ahead. Games dripping with audacity. Curry didn’t have bulging muscles yet. Thompson didn’t have facial hair. Green didn’t have gray in his beard. They were so young when this run began in April 2013.
They lost an All-Star starter (David Lee) to injury in Game 1 and then lost the game on a heart-breaking layup from Andre Miller, who beat Green with 1.3 seconds left. And, somehow, they came into what was then the Pepsi Center expecting to win. They backed up their irrational confidence by making 14 of 25 from deep and shooting 64.6 percent for the game.
Curry even remembered that time he got into it with a Nuggets fan. But that was Game 5.
“Obviously, a lot has changed since then,” Curry said. “But it does bring back good memories of being on the stage for the first time and playing well. The only thing I’m happy about is in the tunnel, they pushed the fans back, so I don’t getta go at no fans out there. “
That series in Denver was the initiation of the streak and the mindset of embracing the antagonism of road playoff basketball. They built on that series, and the road win they got in San Antonio the following series, to establish a particular character.
Winning playoff games on the road is arguably the hardest feat in the NBA. It requires a certain mental toughness. It requires talent. It requires a connectedness and shared sacrifice. They learned that first in Denver.
“Just how difficult it can be and how much collectivity it takes,” Thompson said of the lessons that first road win taught them. “Guys can have great individual performances. Those may be hyped up with the media. But it’s always a team effort, no matter what series it is. And that’s just the nature of basketball. No one can do it by themselves. “
When the Warriors’ turned to their closing lineup, the game was tied at 107 with 4:27 remaining. The Nuggets were clicking and fighting for their postseason lives. The Nuggets fans, many of whom remember how Golden State upset their team in 2013, were breathing down on the hated Warriors.
We know the champions produce in those moments. We know they love it.
Green got the game-sealing defensive stop. Isolated in the post with five fouls, he stripped MVP Nikola Jokić to force a critical turnover. Then he let the Nuggets fans hear about his defensive greatness. He even had some smoke for legendary quarterback Peyton Manning sitting courtside.
“I don’t know if it was specifically for me,” Manning said with a smile as he walked the halls of the arena. “But he was pointing in my direction.”
Green laughed. “That was definitely at him.”
Curry drew a charge and put the Nuggets to bed with a driving layup. Thompson played a team-high 37 minutes, 27 seconds and got his one rebound in the clutch. He also executed a perfect box out on Jokić that led to another big defensive rebound. Iguodala pulled out some of his hops – on a thunderous dunk and for the block on the Nuggets’ last 3-point attempt.
Curry, Thompson and Green have been doing this for 10 years now. Taking opponents’ best punch. Silencing crowds. Making big shots. Getting the stops they have to have. Feeding off the energy, playing the antagonist. Winning at home is expected. But winning on the road takes a different ingredient.
“Competitiveness,” Curry said. “A swagger about us. We understand how to win games down the stretch. Obviously, that doesn’t always happen. But every series we’ve found a way to just withstand runs and hostile environments, and there’s a lot of level of trust in how we do it. “
But Game 3 of this Western Conference series showed they’ve got some other players who share the same fabric. They’re a win away from dispatching the Nuggets and getting to rest up for the second round, partly because they have some new guys game enough to keep the tradition going.
Wiggins followed up his big 3-pointer by defending Jokić in the post, getting a good contest in the paint as the Denver center missed the turnaround.
On the next trip down, Wiggins hustled his way to a huge offensive rebound. The Warriors were minus-14 on the boards and had one offensive rebound through three quarters. But when victory was in the balance, when it was time to dig deeper, he beat three Nuggets to the ball and got the Warriors another possession. Poole made it count with a driving layup to put the Warriors ahead, 114-111, with 2:15 left.
“Huge,” Poole said. “Huge. Huge. “
As he departed Ball Arena, Wiggins was still beaming. He doesn’t flash it often, so his smile glows when it stretches.
He has found a home with the Warriors and has become an important figure. He became an All-Star with them. And now he has the stamp of approval from the champions. They saw him under the heat lamps of postseason basketball on the road, and they approved.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Wiggins said. “Those guys have been through it all, so to have them vouch for you is big. Hopefully, it’s just the first road playoff win. Hopefully, there’s more to come. “
(Photo of Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole: Bart Young / NBAE via Getty Images)