The Golden State Warriors are moving on to the Western Conference semifinals after beating Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets 102-98 in Game 5 to clinch their first-round series. Stephen Curry finished with a team-high 30 points, while Gary Payton II came up big in the fourth quarter.
The Warriors clamped down on the Nuggets’ offense late, holding them to just 20 points in the fourth and improved to 20-8 in closeout games under Steve Kerr. They’re also now 16-1 all-time when holding a 3-1 series lead – the lone loss came in the 2016 Finals.
Michael Malone’s Nuggets have had success in the past in elimination games and even overcoming 3-1 series holes. However, Denver fell short in forcing a Game 6 and extending its postseason. Jokic finished with 30 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists in the loss. The Warriors advance to face the winner between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 5.
1. He may be a Nugget, but he’s also a warrior
When Nuggets head coach Mike Malone addressed the media after Game 5, he had nothing but praise for Nikola Jokic. “The guy is the definition of a warrior,” Malone said of the reigning MVP. The phrasing was perhaps a bit odd considering their opponents from Golden State, but the sentiment was felt through the end of the game, and indeed, the entire season.
It was almost poetic. Jokic, playing virtually the entire season without star teammates Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray, had to carry the Nuggets to a historic degree this season. A team that had no business sniffing the playoffs managed to earn a No. 6 seed thanks to their MVP. He staved off a sweep in Game 4 with a 37-point explosion. But with his season on the line on Wednesday, his body finally broke. He couldn’t carry his teammates any longer. He left the game with a hamstring injury. If he hadn’t played another minute the rest of the night, his offseason rest would have been well-earned.
Instead, he not only returned, he dominated. Aside from Monte Morris’ garbage-time layup, Jokic was the only Nugget to score in the last eight minutes and six seconds of the game. You could not possibly ask for a better encapsulation of his season. Jokic carried the Nuggets as far as he possibly could. They couldn’t carry him the final few steps they needed to tonight, and their season ended as a result.
But if these teams meet again next season, with Murray and Porter back in the fold and perhaps a few upgrades scattered among the rest of the roster, don’t be surprised if the result is different. This was not a fair fight. Even under the circumstances, Jokic stared down a top-15 player of all time in Stephen Curry and was every bit his equal. If his team can match Curry’s next season, then this could be one of the best series of the 2023 postseason.
2. Boogie time
The last four seasons have not been kind to DeMarcus Cousins. In that span, he has somehow managed to play for the Curry-era Warriors, LeBron James Lakers, James Harden Rockets, Kawhi Leonard Clippers, Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks and Jokic Nuggets… without ever winning a championship. He’s been on four teams in the past two years alone, and didn’t even start this season on a roster. The NBA has essentially discarded a 31-year-old former All-Star.
But as this series has proven, Cousins still has a place in the league. In fact, he might have a home in Denver. That much was apparent from the moment he signed. He may no longer be a 30-minute player and his defense can border on disastrous, but the numbers don’t lie. Before Cousins arrived in January, the Nuggets were outscored by 217 points in the 823 minutes they’d played without Jokic. Afterward? That fell to just 38 points in 662 minutes.
He was at his best in Game 5, scoring 19 points on an 8-of-12 shooting to keep Denver afloat in the minutes Jokic had to rest. Once again, Denver kept pace in the non-Jokic minutes. For the series as a whole, the Nuggets actually won the minutes Cousins played by three.
He’s a very specific player at this stage of his career, but that specificity is very valuable to Denver. The Nuggets are built around Jokic’s unique gifts. No backup on Earth could replicate them. But in Cousins, they have the closest facsimile they could possibly ask for out of a minimum salary, a playmaking center that they can run offense through and who can pound mismatches. He’s not a core player anymore. He shouldn’t start. There are matchups where he won’t be able to play at all. But Cousins has proven that he shouldn’t have to wait until midseason to get a job next year. If anything, Denver should commit to him as its primary backup center right away.
3. Strength in numbers
Andrew Wiggins is making the maximum salary. Jordan Poole is inching in that direction. There’s a reason the Warriors are now starting both along with their three entrenched superstars. Most teams are so desperate for players like that they run them into the ground. If Denver had Wiggins or Poole tonight, they’d have played 45 minutes apiece.
Steve Kerr used them for 50… combined. Neither of them closed the game. Instead, they relied on Kevon Looney, making mid-level money, Otto Porter, a minimum-salary home-run swing, and Gary Payton II, a training camp surprise, as their fourth-quarter role players. That decision proved to be a brilliant one. It help the Warriors clamp down defensively against a rampaging Jokic. Payton hit some of the biggest shots of his career. The Warriors advanced.
Golden State’s mantra since Steve Kerr arrived has been “strength in numbers,” but it’s always felt a bit forced. You could argue that Anderson Varejao’s excessive minutes in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals cost Golden State a championship. Their starters have always played limited minutes in the name of engaging the entire roster. Aside from the Kevin Durant years, it certainly helped chemistry, but the numbers suggested it probably wasn’t doing them many favors on the court.
But this team is something else entirely. There’s nothing forced about this season’s depth. The Warriors are the rare contender with so many stars that they don’t even have to use all of them. Their talent surplus is so enormous that they can pick and choose role players for specific circumstances without having to worry about a talent deficit. Even rookie Jonathan Kuminga gave them a half-decent second-quarter stretch. Andre Iguodala will have a role waiting for him when he returns. Golden State’s depth is perhaps its greatest weapon. The Warriors can play any way they choose. Few other contenders have ever been able to say the same.