10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Warriors -6.5, Over/Under: 234
As the Regular Season continues to march towards it’s conclusion, there is still plenty to be decided in terms of positioning for the Playoffs, particularly out in the Western Conference in which the Golden State Warriors host the Denver Nuggets in a matchup featuring two teams that separated by a single game in the Standings. While it remains to be seen just how much competition that they’ll provide the four-time Western Champions when it’s all said and done, the Nuggets (43-21, 2nd in Western Conference) have been by far and away the most persistent challenger to the Warriors’ dominance of the Conference throughout the course of the season. In fact, they spent largely the first two and a half months of the campaign leading the pack out West, though the marathon-like pace of the Regular Season has certainly provided it’s share of pitfalls for this group of young upstarts, who despite a bevy of injuries have remained near the top of the pecking order. After very nearly qualifying for the Playoffs a year ago, Mike Malone and his Staff have done an admirable job of developing this largely homegrown crop of players, who appear to be peaking together at the right time. Fourth-year Center Nikola Jokic (20.5 PTS, 50.5% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 7.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.6 BLK, 26.9 PER) has blossomed into a bonafide go-to guy in the Post, while further extending his game to other areas where he has expanded his skill-set. After all, let’s not forget that this guy also serves as their leader in assists. with Malone running much of the offense through his Center. Sharpshooting Guards Jamal Murray (18.3 PTS, 42.9% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 4.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 15.2 PER) and Gary Harris (13.9 PTS, 42.5% FG, 32.0% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 13.4 PER) have continued to open things up for him with their ability to knock down open shots, while Will Barton (12.7 PTS, 42.0% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 3.4 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.6 BLK, 13.4 PER), a former Second Round Pick of the Trail Blazers, has emerged as a jack-of-all-trades for Denver. Furthermore, Management has done a solid job of adding veteran talent to accentuate their youth, with Paul Millsap (12.5 PTS, 48.8% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 18.6 PER) unsurprisingly complementing Jokic, which he’s done with just about every talented big man that he’s played with throughout his 13-year career. These are just a few of the figures of one of the more deeper rotations in the league, featuring a dozen players logging at least 10:00 Minutes per Game, seven of which scoring in double-figures.
After winning their first three outings after the All-Star Break, the Nuggets have found themselves embroiled in a miniature slide of sorts, losing three of their past four contests. Fortunately, Malone’s charges were able to snap that three-game skid with a 115-99 victory over the fading Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday Night, allowing them to continue to keep pace with the Warriors (who met defeat at the hands of the Celtics) in the Standings. Despite all the pageantry that followed LeBron James’ passing of Michael Jordan on the NBA’s All-Time Scoring List, this game was hardly in contention, for the visiting Nuggets owned their counterpart throughout the affair. Denver outscored the decimated hosts 43-25 in the First Quarter alone, and never really looked back, despite a brief counterpunch in the Third Quarter. This one was all about one team outworking the other, leading to a wealth of extra possessions for the visiting side, who attempted Ninety-Eight Field Goals in comparison to Eighty-Four for the Lakers, hammering them on the boards (Plus-14), particularly on the offensive glass (Plus-13). All five starters scored in double-figures, led by the aforementioned Barton, totaled Twenty-Three Points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field (50.0%), including 5-of-11 from downtown (45.5%), while Jokic personally kept them at bay in the Paint, with Seventeen Rebounds to pair with his Twelve Points. The towering Serbian also led his team with Eight Assists. The Nuggets attempted a whopping Forty-Two Three-Pointers on that night, netting thirteen of them (31.0%), which while not a great percentage by any means, still granted them a sizable advantage (Plus 18 Points). That performance marked just the fifth time this season in which they attempted forty or more Threes in a single game, though ironically it was their second consecutive such showing, and just the second time thus far in which they’ve managed to win. Needless to say, the Money Ball isn’t really a significant part of their attack, for Denver ranks 16th in Three-Point Attempts per Game (31.3), and 17th in Three-Point Field Goals (11.1).
Meanwhile, it may have taken them a while to get their house in order, but to the absolute surprise of nobody, the Warriors (44-20, 1st in Western Conference) have once again emerged as the prohibitive favorite out West. As has been the case throughout their historic, four-year run of dominance, which has net them three NBA Championships, the prevailing notion remained that the only thing that could really stand in their way was themselves. And with about a month left to play in the Regular Season, that continues to be true. Apathetic to the expectations, Golden State has approached this term with what can only be described as boredom, though they have certainly managed to spice things up with brief infighting, the inclusion of All-Star Center DeMarcus Cousins (15.5 PTS, 45.0% FG, 8.1 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 19.7 PER), whom they shockingly signed to an absurd one-year, $5.3 million contract, and any number of quotes made to the media. Of course, the impending Free Agencies of former MVP Kevin Durant (27.5 PTS, 51.1% FG, 35.6% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 5.7 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 24.5 PER), sniper extraordinaire Klay Thompson (22.0 PTS, 47.0% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.9 PER), defensive dynamo Draymond Green (7.1 PTS, 43.8% FG, 26.1% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 7.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 12.9 PER), and the aforementioned Cousins has done nothing but fuel the raging fires of speculation that this proverbial super-team is on the verge of finally breaking up. With all that said, Injuries have, and continue to this point of time to be this group’s biggest issue. Green missed Fifteen Games, while their other MVP, Steph Curry (28.3 PTS, 48.0% FG, 43.5% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.4 BLK, 25.0 ER) missed nine of his own, while Cousins sat out the first forty-seven outings rehabbing from a torn Achilles suffered midway through the previous campaign. Currently, their rotation has been shortened considerably thanks various ailments to Thompson, along with Kevon Looney (6.2 PTS, 60.8% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.8 BLK, 16.6 PER) and Shaun Livingston (4.2 PTS, 48.6% FG, 1.9 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.5 BLK, 11.9 PER), robbing them of precious depth, which once was a serious strength only now to become a bit of a detriment.
Time will tell just how long this particular injury bug will last, and how profound of an impact it will leave on them, but one thing is for certain in the meantime: the Warriors have been playing far from their best basketball. Losers of five out of their last eight games, including three of their past four, Golden State is suffering without a full complement of weapons. When we last saw them, they were getting embarrassed at home against the Boston Celtics in 128-95 disaster, who if you haven’t been paying attention, have certainly been going through their own problems of late. The reigning Champions were never in this one to begin with folks, trailing 32-24 at the end of the First Quarter shortly before heading into Halftime down 73-48. With Thompson (knee soreness), Looney (pelvic soreness), and Livingston (neck spasms) all in street clothes, the hosts were about as dreadful as imaginable, shooting a dismal 40.0% from the field, including a scant 8-of-35 from beyond the arc (22.9%), while committing nearly as many Turnovers (21) as Assists (26). Durant (5-of-16 FG) and Cousins (4-of-12 FG) were terrible, with both players shooting well below 35.0% overall, including a combined 0-of-10 from the perimeter, accounting for Nine Turnovers themselves. Unfortunately, that was only half of the story, for Golden State’s effort on the defensive end of the court was enough to make Kerr lose nauseous; the Dubs allowed the struggling Celtics to shoot 51.0% from the field, including 14-of-34 from downtown (41.2%). but by far and away the most striking statistic in this blowout was the fact that they permitted the visiting side to dish out a ridiculous Thirty-Eight Assists on Forty-Nine Field Goals. While we hardly think anyone will panic over this abysmal performance, for we all know just how great this team is when they’re completely healthy. However, if this does in fact continue to linger on, it begs the question as to whether or not we’ll actually see them completely healthy at any point.