George Karl deserves to be the NBA coach of the year.

But he wasn't the best coach at the Pepsi Center on Saturday, when the Nuggets escaped with a 97-95 victory against Golden State in Game 1 of an opening-round playoff series.

Yes, it requires four victories to eliminate the Warriors. But this best-of-seven series is over.

Unless Karl blows it.

The Warriors are nothing more than the task at hand, a nuisance, a mundane chore. The real problem confronting the Nuggets: How to adjust a regular-season formula that resulted in an NBA franchise-record 57 victories to the more unforgiving landscape of the playoffs.

Golden State coach Mark Jackson set the template for how to beat Denver in the postseason. It's on videotape. And it will be copied from San Antonio to Oklahoma City and all other NBA cities from coast to coast.

Here was Jackson's game plan: Slow the pace. Limit the Nuggets' scoring opportunities off turnovers. Dare them to shoot from outside by mixing in a little zone defense. Get physical with Denver big men in the paint, foul when necessary and see how many free throws they clank.

News flash: The NBA playoffs are a grind. Are the Nuggets built to grind out victories?

"Would I like to have an easier game? (Heck) yeah, I'd like to have an easier game," Karl said. "But playoff basketball isn't about easy games."


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Is it disrespectful to declare this series done? Not when Jackson basically admitted as much, playing his we've-got-no-shot card 90 minutes before tipoff. And that possum act was presented before Golden State forward David Lee, the Warriors' second-leading scorer, went down with a hip flexor injury that sent him hobbling off the court, his return to the series in doubt.

"Nobody expects us to win, and that's OK," Jackson said. "If I was picking, I'd pick Denver to win it. I'd pick them to win this series. I give them the edge in coaching, too."

To which Karl replied, "I appreciate the love."

Should the Nuggets dominate the paint against Golden State? Check.

Does Denver have a deeper bench? Check.

But if you already checked the coaching box in favor of Karl, you might want to grab an eraser.

Karl has won more than 1,100 NBA games. Jackson has coached fewer than 150 at the pro level. But he brought the smarter ideas to Game 1.

"They'll throw some tricks at us," Karl said.

The Nuggets are capable of playing beautifully unselfish basketball, with an all-for-one, one-for-all style that will win them fans nationwide should they hang around for more television face time in the playoffs.

Denver's style is built on trust fostered by Karl and his staff.

But the question is: Do the Nuggets trust their jumpers when the pressure of the postseason dares them to choke?

"I thought we had a very good performance of executing our game plan," Jackson said. On nearly every point of emphasis, the Warriors gave Denver headaches.

Golden State limited its turnovers in the first half, surrendering only six points off mistakes. Denver outscored the visitors 52-40 in the paint, and you can bet Karl expects to be plus-20 in that category. When Warriors guard Stephen Curry launched one of those long jumpers that have made him famous, his teammates were peeling back on defense, resulting in only a 15-12 Denver edge in fast-break points.

"They didn't want us to get any fast breaks. ... They were running back," Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson said. "For us, instead of taking our time, we've got to push it up."

Veteran guard Andre Miller was the hero for Denver, with 28 points, including the driving layup that beat the fourth-quarter buzzer by barely more than a tick. His clutch shot put Miller in the happy epicenter of a raucous team hug.

The most crucial play of Game 1, however, was Lawson's steal from Curry, when the Warriors had a chance to take the lead with 38.9 seconds remaining in the final period.

"The strength of our team is we find ways to win," Karl said.

There are no ugly victories in the NBA playoffs. But there are wins that reveal flaws that merit concern and demand correction.

"We're playing with house money," Jackson said.

The Nuggets are playing with the burden of expectations, something rare for this franchise.

"Pile on those expectations," Karl said. "Let's go, babe."

If Denver is to make serious noise in the playoffs, this humbling victory needs to be a teaching tool. That is Karl's job.

Contact Mark Kiszla at mkiszla@denverpost.com or @markkiszla on Twitter.