Basketball

Warriors vs Nuggets: First Round Preview

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Warriors fans, the playoffs are here. The first batch of play in games have come and gone, and we’re just about 24 hours away from the first round kicking off.

This series brings us a battle of MVPs – Stephen Curry vs Nikola Jokic. Brilliant in their own unique ways, only one of these two can advance, and both are looking for blood.

This clash between two of the Western Conference’s finest sets up to be riveting, and at times, possibly sluggish, but these two teams are a joy to watch and this series should be nothing less.

This chess match is going to be an abundance of fun, but what exactly should fans be paying close attention to as this one plays out?

Nikola Jokic versus Golden State’s Defense

Jokic is one of the best players in the game and when his career is over, he’ll go down as one of the most unique players the league has ever seen. The 27-year-old Serbian puts up video game-like numbers averaging 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game on the season while shooting 58.3% from the field and 33.7% from beyond the arc.

“It’s pick your poison. He can score 1-on-1 down on the block, brilliant passer. Biggest thing for us is we can’t give up the easy stuff”, said Steve Kerr when asked about Jokic’ wizardry.

The Joker gets it done from virtually everywhere on the court – from the low post, to the high post and out to the top of the arc, he’s comfortable setting up shop and going to work anywhere on the court. He flirts with a triple-double on a nightly basis and because of his size, shooting, and passing capabilities, there just isn’t a whole lot opposing defenses can do to slow the big man down.

Recently, coach Kerr was asked whether the star Serbian is more dangerous as a passer or as a scorer, to which Kerr jokingly responded with, “Yes.” Kerr’s response tells you everything you need to know about the possible back-to-back MVP.

Jokic is going to hurt opposing teams regardless of how they decide to defend him, but the Warriors may actually be well equipped to slow the Nuggets as a whole.

Golden State boasts one of the top defenses in the game, and at its best they’re suffocating.

Draymond Green is one of the best defensive disruptors in the game, Gary Payton II doesn’t hold the nickname, “Baby Glove” for no reason, and outside of those two you’ve got a handful of quality defenders that know how to follow the game plan. Although they’re undersized at the center position, Golden State has quite a bit of size and length out on the perimeter and I think they match up pretty favorably across the board with Denver.

Outside of Jokic there’s not one guy on the Nuggets active roster that you’re too worried about killing you offensively but they do have guys like Will Barton, Austin Rivers, and a number of other guys who can get hot and put up points in a hurry. It’s going to take an entire unit to slow them down.

Jokic had boatloads of success in four games against Golden State this season averaging 28 points, 15.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game. Denver went 3-1 in their regular season matchups but Green was absent in all four of those contests. Since the Joker’s first all-star appearance in 2018-19, he’s averaged 19.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7 assists per game in games where he’s gone up against Green.

Slowing down everyone else will be key but if Green is holding Jokic to those types of numbers, Golden State will be in really, really good shape.

An Analytical Perspective

Basketball fans everywhere should be stoked for this series. Sitting top five in the league in assists, both of these teams pride themselves on sharing the ball and I’ve got a feeling this series is going to put that on full display.

My favorite stat in this matchup is the fact that Golden State is first in the league in points on cuts, while Denver is fourth and Golden State is first in the league in points coming from screens, while Denver is ninth. If their assists numbers don’t indicate it, then this certainly illustrates the fact that both of these squads are a bit of an anomaly when it comes to their offensive concepts. The NBA as a whole is pretty pick and roll heavy, but these two hang their hats on screening and off-ball movement.

Statistically, these two teams are pretty evenly matched but the defensive end is where Golden State owns an edge. Golden State has the 2nd best defensive rating in the league at 106.6 while Denver’s is 111.5, good enough for 15th in the NBA. While Denver isn’t bad, Golden State’s defense is on a different level.

One thing to watch closely in this series is the turnover battle. Both teams are top five in turnovers per game and both are bottom 10 in opponent points off turnovers. Basically, they both turn it over a lot and they both give up a lot of points on those turnovers, but Golden State still holds the edge here. The Warriors force 14.5 turnovers per game (8th in the league) while Denver forces just 12.8 (26th in the league); forcing turnovers will be vital to Golden State’s success in this series.

Both teams possess lethal offensive units but they get things done in much different ways. 51.4% of Denver’s points come from two-point field goals, 33.7% of their points come from long distance, and 14.8% of their offense comes from the free throw line. Golden State has 47.2% of its points from two-point field goals, 38.8% from distance, and 14.1% come from the charity stripe.

Denver is second in the league in post up frequency, while Golden State is in the bottom five.

Both teams have a healthy, balanced attack but Denver does most of its damage inside the arc while Golden State lives beyond the arc.

Offensively, the Warriors need to get going from distance. Denver is one of the best in the league at defending the three point line, holding opponents to 34.6% from three on the season (10th) while Golden State is eighth in the league at 36.4% from distance and third in the league in total makes.

Forcing turnovers (plus capitalizing on them) and winning the battle of the three point line are the keys to Golden State coming out of this series victorious.

Curry Returns?

It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but Warriors guard Stephen Curry appears to be on path to return in game one of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

It was widely reported around the league that Curry needed to get through Thursday’s scrimmage without any issues. Coach Steve Kerr said after Thursday’s practice that Curry did make it through the scrimmage with no problems, but he noted if Curry does return for game one, which Curry is optimistic about, he’ll be on a minutes restriction.

Thursday’s post practice interviews were bittersweet. On one hand, it seems likely that Curry suits up and plays Saturday night but on the other hand, the idea of a minute restriction was a little tough to hear. The Warriors will take whatever Curry is able to give them but a minute restriction? In the playoffs? C’mon now.

If the doctors are advising a minute restriction then it is tough to go against that but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Even if they just gradually ramp Curry up throughout the series, every single minute of these games matters and you want as little “what ifs” as possible if things don’t go in your favor when the series is all said and done.

Series Prediction

The Warriors definitely have a few of their own question marks heading into this series. Will Curry be rusty? Can their core stay on the court for the duration of a series? Let alone the entirety of the playoffs? Will their lineup inconsistency be too much for their chemistry to overcome? Not to mention Jokic and the Nuggets size advantage.

A long and entertaining series awaits. Two teams that are good on both sides of the ball and are both led by generational, game-changing players. While Curry’s minute restriction could bite the Warriors in the butt in one of the early games, assuming they can finally stay healthy for an extended period of time as a group, they’re the better team on both sides of the ball, but Michael Malone’s Nuggets are a gritty bunch.

Golden State in 6.

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