Warriors

Warriors Have Different Test With Familiar Foe

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The Golden State Warriors and the Denver Nuggets in the 3-6 first-round matchup?

Sounds familiar.

Last time this happened, Stephen Curry did this:

The first playoff series in his career (2013), he led the short-handed Warriors to the Western Conference Semis.

Three championships, five NBA Finals appearances, eight playoff berths and nine years later, it’s time for a different test from a similar foe.

Ending the Season Strong

After Steph suffered a foot injury on March 16th, the Warriors found themselves struggling to stay afloat. The team went 1-6 in the seven games following Curry’s exit, which included some bad losses to teams like Orlando and Washington.

But even with the uncertainty surrounding Curry’s injury, Golden State was forced to learn how to win without him in the lineup. In his place, Jordan Poole averaged 25.8 points per game and set a new career high in assists three separate times.

After struggling to find his rhythm since returning from injury, Klay Thompson turned things around, posting 30.8 points per game over their last six games (five wins).

We can expected Curry to hold a questionable designation for Game 1 on April 16th, so the coming week of practice (and extra rest thanks to the play-in tournament) will be incredibly significant in determining his return.

Golden State’s identity is completely different with Curry out of the lineup, but the supporting cast is building chemistry with each other and discovering new ways to find wins at the perfect time.

This Season Against Denver

While the Warriors finished the season third in the Western Conference with a 53-29 record, they went just 1-3 against the Nuggets. This may look alarming at first, but there’s much more to take away from these matchups than the results show.

  • Draymond Green did not play in any of them.
  • On March 7th, Denver won 131-124, but the Warriors were without Curry, Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. This was the result of a rescheduled game after a prior meeting was postponed due to COVID-19.
  • Denver won 117-116 on February 16th on a Monte Morris game-winner. Incredible game.
  • Coincidentally, with the sum of all four game scores, Denver and Golden State both scored 439 points.

Clearly, the season series was closer and more complex than the 3-1 Denver advantage indicates.

The Nuggets’ Story

While both sides were never fully healthy in their head-to-head battles over the regular season, much of the same can be expected for the playoff series– especially on Denver’s end. Their two co-stars, Jamal Murray (torn ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back surgery), are both unlikely to return for the playoffs after missing significant time.

However, the team has been able to stay afloat all season due to the outstanding impact of potential back-to-back NBA MVP Nikola Jokic.

There is no mentioning of the Nuggets without the leading big man who has revolutionized what a superstar center can look like in the NBA. Jokic successfully built on his massive success last season to prove himself as even more of an offensive juggernaut, leading his depleted team to a 48-34 record.

Against Golden State this season, Jokic played phenomenally, averaging 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in all four meetings.

In the absence of Murray and Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon has averaged 15.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and Will Barton has contributed 14.7 points and a team-leading 2.2 three-pointers made per game. Monte Morris has stepped into a starting role with no hesitation, lending 12.6 points and 4.4 assists per game as a key ball-handler for the team.

The Joker is the entire engine that runs this team, and he’s a near-unstoppable force. His talent and chemistry with the Nuggets’ supporting cast has led the team to a sixth-best offensive rating this season, far greater than the Warriors, who are middle of the pack. They’re much stronger on that end of the floor, yet with their success against Golden State so far this season, they’ll head into this matchup with the confidence they can do it again on their way to another playoff run.

What to Expect

All season long, the Warriors have found themselves at a size disadvantage. With zero true centers on the roster due to James Wiseman‘s torn meniscus, the team has leaned on Kevon Looney to step up.

And he has. He’s one of only five NBA players to have appeared in all 82 games this season.

Looney and Green will both be challenged and punished by Jokic this series. If both of them can stay out of foul trouble, the Warriors should be able to keep at least one of them on the court at all times, perhaps complemented by Nemanja Bjelica.

But Jokic’s sheer size and talent may be overpowering. This could be one of those series where the Warriors challenge the rest of the Nuggets’ players to beat them; if Jokic can put up 40 every game, could the rest of the team do enough to steal wins?

That’s something that could win the Warriors this matchup. Denver is much stronger offensively than defensively, and Golden State has the scoring capability to run away with it. A small lineup of Curry-Poole-Thompson-Wiggins-Green could play a vital role in moving the needle in the Warriors’ direction. Steve Kerr could roll out those five and dare Denver to stop it.

On paper that sounds like a great plan for the Warriors, who clearly have the more-talented roster of the two teams. But there is no guarantee this will magically work.

For one, Steph hasn’t played in a month. How he recovers and how many minutes he’s able to play will dictate which direction the series goes. And if he can return at full strength, that could impact the chemistry and minutes for someone like Poole or Wiggins.

The Warriors got unlucky with the timing of their injuries, and are forced to experiment with what works during this playoff series; in the games that really matter. If they can adjust quickly and not let games slip away from them, things could be looking up.

Moving On

Assuming Stephen Curry suits up for Game 1, the Warriors have too much talent and experience for the short-handed Nuggets to defeat.

A consistent Jordan Poole + hot Klay Thompson + engaged DPOY Draymond Green + healthy Stephen Curry = Wins.

It’s the lineup that the Warriors have been dreaming of for ages. Since Thompson left Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, it’s all been buildup to what the big three can do when the band is back together. The ‘Big Three’ played a total of 11 minutes together in the regular season after waiting 941 days to have Thompson on the floor again, completing this all-time trio.

There will be a lot more than 11 coming during this series.

The time has finally come for the Warriors to prove they still belong at the top of the basketball world.

Time for playoff basketball in San Francisco. Time for another deep run. And it can’t come soon enough.

About Tyler Brook

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