Going into the first round, it seemed like the Golden State Warriors might as well spot the Denver Nuggets a 2-0 series lead. High in the Rocky Mountains, Denver lost only three home games during the entire regular season.
When David Lee went down, some foresaw a clean sweep for the Nuggets. But Golden State shocked the Nuggets and stole a road win in Game 2. Then they defended their own home turf for two more wins in Oakland.
Facing elimination, Denver finally stopped trying to match up with the Warriors' undersized lineup. Kenneth Faried, the inimical "Manimal," returned to the 4 as JaVale McGee joined the starting five. George Karl's savvy resulted in a Game 5 win.
But going back to Cali and fending off an upset is a different task altogether.
Game 6 Time: Thursday, May 2, 10:30 p.m. ET
Where: ORACLE Arena, Oakland, Calif.
Series Record: 3-2 Warriors
Game 6 Key Storyline: Can the Nuggets Steal a Road Win of Their Own?
Denver actually posted a sub-.500 record on the road this season, going 19-22.
In both of the Nuggets' losses at ORACLE Arena so far, they allowed the Warriors to shoot better than 50 percent. And the Nuggets came up short in different ways in the two tilts.
In Game 3, the small-ball Warriors won the rebounding battle 42 to 34. In Game 4, Golden State forced 23 turnovers by the Nuggets, which resulted in a 33-20 edge for points off turnovers. The Warriors won the game by 14 points.
The Nuggets cannot persist with their limp, sloppy play away from home.
If they come up short on Thursday, it will put a shameful bow on their otherwise promising season. Ty Lawson cannot be their only scorer, but as he struggled in Game 5, his teammates picked him up with five other players scoring in double digits.
Series Star So Far: Jarrett Jack
Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory is in full effect with the Golden State Warriors.
After David Lee went down, Golden State figured to languish without its double-doubles factory on the block. Instead, third-place Sixth Man of the Year Jarrett Jack stepped in and spurred the Warriors to three consecutive wins.
Jack has averaged 20 points per game on an unreal 57.6 percent shooting, plus 7.6 dimes and 5.4 boards. His production has been just short of Curry's, and Jack has actually done it with more efficiency.
Projected Starting Lineups
Golden State: Stephen Curry, PG; Jarrett Jack, SG; Klay Thompson, SF; Harrison Barnes, PF; Andrew Bogut, C
Denver: Ty Lawson, PG; Andre Iguodala, SG; Wilson Chandler, SF; Kenneth Faried, PF; JaVale McGee, C
Warriors Injury Report (per ESPN.com)
David Lee (hip), out for season; Stephen Curry (ankle), day-to-day
Nuggets Injury Report
Danilo Gallinari (knee), out for season
Nuggets Will Win If...
They don't play too small.
After David Lee went down in Game 1, the Warriors went to small ball and started Jarrett Jack in his stead. The Nuggets tried to go small too, but they went too small.
They lack Golden State's diversity of slippery shooters, and they've failed to match up against the size of Andrew Bogut in the middle. For the first four games of the series, the Nuggets never started Kosta Koufos, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee together.
After the Dubs won three straight games, George Karl started McGee and the Manimal in Game 5. Together, they pulled down 18 rebounds and limited Bogut to just five.
And the move made perfect sense. The ineffective Evan Fournier was subtracted from the starting lineup, with Andre Iguodala shifting to the 2 and Wilson Chandler moving to the 3. Kenneth Faried looked more energetic playing at power forward as well.
George Karl may finally have solved the riddle of the hot-shooting Warriors. The Nuggets outscored the Dubs 50-24 in the paint on Tuesday, and they should muscle their way to a seventh game.
Warriors Will Win If...
They shoot 50 percent from the field.
Curry struggled through Game 5, scoring just 15 points and missing six of his seven three-point attempts.
He seemed a bit thin-skinned, which also rubbed off on Mark Jackson, as he spent time carping about several run-of-the-mill fouls. Some people call that "playoff basketball," and Jackson himself is no stranger to that.
The Warriors are capable of putting on a sublime shooting performance, like Game 2 (64.6 percent from the field, 14-of-25 from downtown), and they must continue to shoot their way to victory.
The Dubs offense isn't just Curry and Jack either. Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Carl Landry have each shot better than 47 percent in the series, and they're averaging just shy of 40 points per game combined.
While Golden State will need that balanced scoring to continue, Steph Curry remains the centerpiece. He must shake off the cobwebs and play with a singular focus on closing out the series. If Denver wants to get chippy, he has to play even better. One three-pointer isn't going to cut it.
The Warriors made a believer out of me by defending their home court in Games 3 and 4.
Without David Lee, they have run-and-gunned their way to the cusp of Round 2. Having seen Stephen Curry this season both on TV and in person, I can confirm both his heart and his thrilling ability. He will respond to Denver's physical play with a determined shooting performance.
Once considered dark-horse contenders for the NBA Finals, the Nuggets will get stuck in Golden State's elevator doors and head straight for the golf course with a devastating first-round exit.
Prediction: Warriors 113, Nuggets 102