If a game script had been written to guarantee a Denver Nuggets win, it would have looked remarkably similar to the events of Game 3. A dominant effort from Nikola Jokić, a revitalized Aaron Gordon, and intense second-half defense could have given Denver its first win of the series. Instead, they fell in the final minutes to the Golden State Warriors, 118-113.
The Warriors guards were hot out of the gates, with Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson combining for 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the game’s first five minutes. Frustration started early for the Nuggets, who trailed 15-8 after making just four of their first nine shots.
Out of the timeout, Golden State deployed their dangerous five-man unit of Poole, Thompson, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins. However, unlike Games 1 and 2, the Nuggets held their own, storming back to tie the contest at 22 behind the type of physical effort Michael Malone hoped they would have.
The two sides went back and forth for the remainder of the quarter. Even with Nikola Jokić taking a seat on the bench, DeMarcus Cousins was solid in relief, as the Nuggets trailed 34-32 after one.
Cousins continued a strong outing off the bench in the second quarter, where he helped facilitate the Nuggets offense to match the pace of the red-hot Poole. At the 7:11 mark of the quarter, the Nuggets trailed 49-45 with Jokić set to check back in.
In what has become a trend during this series, the Warriors used a second quarter run to build some separation from the Nuggets, needing just three minutes to take their lead from four to 11.
The Nuggets certainly had their opportunities to close the gap, but costly mistakes and timely scoring from the Warriors left Denver at a 69-59 halftime deficit.
It was a spirited effort for the Nuggets out of the halftime break, as Aaron Gordon — who had struggled for much of the series — dialed up the energy to help bring his team back into the game. Jokić, Monte Morris, and Will Barton each had strong moments as things were knotted up at 74 at the 7:19 mark.
Jokić put together a dominant third period with efficient shooting and physicality, bringing himself to 26 points and 16 rebounds before being subbed out for Cousins in the final seconds. Heading into the fourth and final quarter, the Nuggets were ahead 89-87.
The third quarter was easily the Nuggets’ best of the series, and Malone praised that 12-minute effort. “I felt in that third quarter, we were the aggressor and attacker on both ends…tonight, we got offense with our defense.”
The Nuggets bench unit had the floor for the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, but were outscored 10-4 in that time, prompting the starters to return down four. An immediate three from Gordon — continuing his breakout second half — brought Denver within one with 7:49 to go.
From there, things went down to the wire as both teams deployed their best lineups. Jokić went to work down low, drawing fouls and scoring with ease, collecting 37 points with 3:30 left in the ballgame. At that point, the Nuggets held a slim 111-109 lead, ensuring a crunch time battle.
Turnovers began haunting the Nuggets, though, as the Warriors intensified their late-game defense. This led to a 7-0 Golden State run to put them up 116-111 with 40 seconds remaining, essentially icing the game and a Warriors 118-113 victory.
Jokić was undeniably incredible, finishing with 37 points and 18 rebounds on 14-of-22 shooting. Gordon, after a slow start, wound up with 18 points and 12 rebounds on 7-of-13 from the field. Poole, Curry, and Thompson were impactful once again, finishing with a combined 80 points on 28-of-48 shooting.
After the game, Malone had nothing but pride for his team. “I couldn’t be more proud of our group. We gave ourselves a chance tonight, and we didn’t do that in Golden State. I love how we fought tonight.”
The Nuggets were simply flawless for much of the evening. But against a team like the Warriors, a few minor mistakes can be the difference-maker, and that was the case in Game 3, as the Nuggets now sit one game from elimination and the end of the 2021-22 season.