Nuggets-Warriors Preview: Denver faces a tall order in the first round
The final weekend of the regular season played out just the way most people expected, as none of the Western Conference playoff seeds changed over the final few games. So as we’ve thought for the better part of the last month, the Denver Nuggets will tip off with the Golden State Warriors in the first round. Game 1 is slated for Saturday night in San Francisco.
Let’s take a look at the matchup:
Season Series (Denver 3-1)
Dec. 28 – Nuggets 89 | Warriors 86
Nikola Jokic had 22 points and 19 rebounds and the game-saving block as the Nuggets moved above .500 at 17-16 on the season. Denver had a 60-36 lead at halftime and allowed the Warriors to tie the game at 84-84 before hanging on for the win. Aaron Gordon, Monte Morris, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole didn’t play in this game, so it doesn’t provide much insight as to how this series might play out.
Feb. 16 – Nuggets 117 | Warriors 116
This one’s a contender for the Nuggets game of the year. Jokic had 35 points, 17 rebound, and the game-winning assist when Monte Morris knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer for the victory. Morris was playing his first game back after a concussion and Denver went into the All-Star break on a three-game win streak. Once again, Draymond Green didn’t play, but Denver held Klay Thompson to 5-15 shooting and Stephen Curry to just 1-7 from beyond the arc to get the win.
Mar. 7 – Nuggets 131 | Warriors 124
Denver moved to 13 games over .500 behind a Jokic triple-double as they held off an undermanned Warriors squad who chose to rest Curry, Thompson and Andrew Wiggins in addition to the injured Draymond Green, Andre Igoudala, Gary Payton Jr, and Otto Porter Jr. Will Barton also sat this one out with an injured ankle. Jordan Poole and Moses Moody combined for 62 points to keep it close throughout.
Mar. 10 – Warriors 113 | Nuggets 102
Curry returned to action scoring 34 points just three days after sitting out the last matchup to lead Golden State to its only win in the season series. Jokic had a near triple-double with 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in the loss. The Nuggets came in winners in 10 of their last 11, but they were playing their fourth game in five nights. Draymond Green, Otto Porter Jr, and Barton also missed this contest.
One of the great things about the NBA Playoffs is that the best players almost always win. Rarely do we encounter a postseason where the best players in the world aren’t leading their teams to the conference finals or beyond. The Nuggets have the best player in Jokic, so they’ve got a chance in any series. Outside of playing Milwaukee in the Finals, he’ll without question be the best player in any series Denver plays.
The challenge with Golden State is star power with experience. Expect Steph Curry to return from injury in this series, and don’t expect him to take long to regain his form. Klay Thompson is coming off some huge scoring game to close out the regular season and says he’s finally feeling like himself after missing the last two years. Curry and Thompson have done it before and Denver’s lack of perimeter defense is going to be a problem when trying to contain them along with Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins.
Draymond Green is the X factor when it comes to this category. He didn’t play in any of the four regular-season matchups. Green’s intelligence and mastery on the defensive end are equal to Jokic’s offensive wizardry. When it comes to basketball IQ, they’re as good as it gets. Draymond will find a way to force turnovers and make things tough on the Joker despite being undersized.
Denver has the best player in the series, but Golden State has more experienced great players.
Offense vs. Defense
Offense wins games, defense wins championships. Is the old cliche as true as it used to be? Probably not. But it was last spring when Milwaukee beat Phoenix in the Finals. And it’s where Golden State has an edge in this series.
Despite the Warriors history of being an offensive juggernaut during the Curry-Thompson-Green run to five straight Finals, that’s not this team’s strength. While the Nuggets ranked fifth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, the Warriors were a very pedestrian 15th.
Golden State’s team defensive rating of 106.6 however, was second only to Boston while Denver came in 15th in the league at 111.5. The Warriors also achieved that rating with Green, their unquestioned best defender, missing 36 games.
Denver struggles to contain the perimeter, and that’s where they’re going to have problems slowing down the Warriors. The Nuggets defense is going to have to find some of the answers it had early in the season, and play much better than it has the last two months. Austin Rivers will see a lot of time in this series as the Nuggets best on-ball defender, and they might end up regretting not having Davon Reed available on the playoff roster. Be prepared to hold your breath while Golden State’s passing finds them a lot of open threes throughout the series.
Golden State doesn’t have much size and they won’t have any answer for Jokic inside. He’ll have some monster games, maybe even in the 40 points and 20 rebound range. The Warriors will have to decide to focus on slowing Jokic or letting him go off while they try to limit the rest of Denver’s unproven playoff roster.
Aaron Gordon has stepped up late in the season and been a beast playing bully ball attacking the basket. If he’s effective inside along with Jokic, Denver can solve the Golden State’s defense. They’ll need some help with someone making threes to create space. Bones Hyland will be interesting to watch in his playoff debut as Denver needs another scorer to step up.
As of Monday oddsmakers had the Warriors a -225 favorite to the Nuggets at a +185 price as the underdog. Golden State has the home-court advantage and hopes to be healthy with their core stars for the first time all season. The wagering odds suggest a seven-game series win by the Warriors as the most likely outcome.
Denver isn’t likely to get the reinforcements many expected from Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. in this series, or beyond. Jokic carried an undermanned team to 48 wins and exhausted himself along the way. On paper, there’s nothing that screams Denver will win the series. But it’s the NBA Playoffs and the Nuggets have the best player, so I’m guessing they like their odds.