Surging Warriors' most glaring flaw on display in loss to Nuggets, but the answer could be on the way

SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a fight scene in the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme cult classic, Bloodsport, in which underdog American bruiser Ray Jackson is matched up against the seemingly unbeatable reigning Kumite champion, Chong Li. After arrogantly ignoring some wise advice from Van Damme’s character, Jackson gets off to a surprisingly hot start against his superior opponent, bloodying Chong Li’s lip and sending him to the mat. Jackson celebrates, raising his arms brazenly toward the stunned crowd as he struts around the ring, urging them to chant his name in reverence.

Big mistake.

Chong Li glances at his foolish opponent, wipes a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, tastes it, and calmly rises to his feet. What ensues is a systematic destruction that leaves Jackson beaten, unconscious and eventually hospitalized, with the defending champion left standing triumphant.

This, in a nutshell, was the Golden State Warriors’ 119-103 loss to the defending champion Denver Nuggets on Sunday at Chase Center. The Warriors looked invincible after Klay Thompson’s 23-point first-half barrage off the bench helped build a 16-point lead midway through the second quarter.

In the flutter of an eyelash, however, the Nuggets rose up off the mat — erasing the lead by halftime, gaining a 10-point edge halfway through the third quarter and never relinquishing control.

“I think we may have relaxed a little bit when we got up 15,” Thompson said after the loss. “Can’t do that against the defending champs.”

Golden State’s recent run of 10 wins in 13 games has been characterized by their vintage mantra of “Strength in Numbers.” Every night sees a different contributor stepping up, with head coach Steve Kerr using as many as 11 players in a single game’s rotation.

Well, on Sunday the Nuggets also used “Strength in Numbers,” but their number was two. As in, a two-man game. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. The best in the biz.

The two-time MVP was absolutely masterful against any defender the Warriors threw at him (and there were plenty), putting up a video game-like 32 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists on 13-for-24 shooting, committing only two turnovers in the process. Murray was similarly spectacular, dropping 27 points on 16 shots, including his signature array of backbreaking fall-aways.

“They really took it to us,” Kerr said after the game. “Obviously, Jokic was amazing. I mean, he just completely dominated that game and put us on our heels over and over again. They’re the champs for a reason.”

While the Warriors scrambled for answers during a rare off shooting night from Stephen Curry (20 points on 6-for-19 from the field), the Nuggets knew exactly who and what to go to on both ends of the floor — starting with the Jokic-Murray combo, flanked by a trio of picture-perfect complements in Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It’s the five-man starting and closing unit that won them last year’s title and the one that’s played the most minutes together of any NBA group this season, with a dominant net rating of plus-14 points per 100 possessions.

It’s also exactly the type of five-man unit that the Warriors, despite all of their recent success, are still missing.

The starting lineup with Draymond Green at center, which Kerr enlisted about a month ago, has been excellent — even better since Brandin Podziemski was inserted into Thompson’s place. The problem is, that isn’t always the unit that closes. If Thompson’s on a heater and Podziemski is showing some rookie jitters (as he rarely does, but did on Sunday), Kerr will go with the veteran down the stretch. If Wiggins is having one of his all-too-frequent disappearing acts, he’ll be nixed in favor of Gary Payton II or Moses Moody. As far as the bigs, Kerr’s basically spinning a wheel throughout any given game to land on some combination of Green, Kevon Looney, Dario Saric and Trayce Jackson-Davis.

It’s a good problem to have … but it is a problem. Every NBA team wants optionality — the ability to play small or big, fast or slow, skilled or physical. The danger comes when you don’t have a group of five to rely upon consistently, as the Warriors have in each of their championship runs.

“It just means that there are decisions to make every night,” Kerr said of his lack of a true closing unit. “The way our team is constructed and the way our guys are playing, it’s gonna be different combinations depending on who’s playing well. It does make it a little trickier, but I like having the options, too. We’ve got a lot of talented players.”

Fortunately for the Warriors, 26 regular-season games remain to figure this out. Chris Paul is expected back at some point in the upcoming four-game road trip, and it’s hard to imagine his presence won’t be a staple in late-game situations once his conditioning is up to speed. Injuries tend to rear their ugly head, potentially eliminating one or two players from the deep rotation. As the playoffs or Play-In Tournament get closer, it’s possible that Kerr will trust veterans like Looney, Wiggins and Payton above youngsters Kuminga, Podziemski and Moody.

On Sunday, Golden State’s fourth straight loss to the Nuggets this season emphasized how far they still have to go in order to get on the level of the champions. The first step is finding a consistent five-man unit to rely upon — win or lose. Getting Paul back in the coming days could be a push in the right direction.

“Whether it’s when I’m on the bench or in rotations where we’re on the court at the same time, it’ll hopefully elevate us to another level where he gets comfortable and gets his legs underneath him,” Curry said on Sunday of Paul’s imminent return. “That on top of how we’ve been playing — up until tonight — hopefully it’ll allow us to keep building.”

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