8:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Warriors -6.5, Over/Under: 223.5
The Playoffs officially kick off today, as the Golden State Warriors make their long-awaited return to the postseason, hosting the resilient Denver Nuggets in Game One of their first round series from Chase Center in San Francisco, California. Making their fourth consecutive playoff appearance, the Nuggets (48-34, 6th in Western Conference) find themselves in a proverbial no man’s land, for coming into this season they harbored legitimate championship aspirations, only for a pair of debilitating injuries to set back the course of their ascension dramatically. First and foremost, Denver has been without the services of (sharpshooting Guard) Jamal Murray for the entire campaign after the 25-year-old tore his ACL in the latter stages of the previous season. Compounding matters is the loss of (promising Forward) Michael Porter Jr. (9.9 PTS, 35.9% FG, 20.8% 3FG, 55.6% FT, 6.6 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 7.5 PER), who was relegated to just nine games after agreeing to a lucrative 5-year, $172 million extension, with a third back surgery sidelining him until next season as well. Needless to say, those absences have been hard to stomach for (Head Coach) Michael Malone and (General Manager) Tim Connelly, who continue to see (reigning MVP) Nikola Jokic (27.1 PTS, 58.3% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 81.0% FT, 13.8 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.5 STL, 0.9 BLK, 32.8 PER) consistently perform at a ridiculously high level; the 27-year-old Serbian international has been arguably even better than his trophy-winning campaign, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (27.1), field goal percentage (58.3%), two-point percentage (65.2%), rebounds (13.8), steals (1.5), and blocks (0.9), along with an NBA-best PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 32.8, which is his second consecutive season leading the league in that particular statistic. Starting seventy-four games, the towering Center has very much carried the Nuggets to this point, particularly when you consider the amount of firepower that he’s been without; a year ago, the tandem of Murray and Porter combined for an average of 40.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.0 steals, with both players providing precious perimeter shooting and spacing at 40.8% and 44.5% respectively. Leaning on Jokic’s talents more than ever, Denver remained one of the NBA’s more prolific offenses, ranking tenth in points (112.7), second in field goal percentage (48.3%), and first in effective field goal percentage (55.6%), but struggled in terms of taking care of the basketball with 14.5 turnovers (26th Overall) and were simply middle of the pack when it came to three-point shooting (35.3%). With that said, the biggest problem for this group continues to be on the defensive end of the hardwood, where they have been merely average at best; Malone’s troops posted a defensive rating of 112.1 (15th Overall), while allowing 110.4 points (14th Overall) on a disappointing 47.0% shooting from the field (21st Overall), including 54.9% shooting within the arc (28th Overall), and offering little resistance at the rim with just 3.7 blocks (29th Overall), and forcing 12.8 turnovers per game (26th Overall). With that said, since dropping three straight games to begin the month of February, they’ve rounded into form with a 20-9 record before sitting nearly everyone of consequence in the season finale against the Lakers, a heated 146-141 loss at home. During this particular stretch they’ve averaged 118.4 points on a very healthy 50.3% shooting, assisting on 29.1 of their field goals, and knocking down 20.0 free-throws a night. That loss to Los Angeles ensured a first-round affair with the Warriors, whom they’ve handled rather well in their four meetings this season, winning all but one of said encounters. With that said, all four matchups were tightly contested, with only one decided by double-digits and the first two by a single possession. In this regular season series, the Nuggets averaged 109.8 points on 46.1% shooting, though struggled mightily from the perimeter where they managed to knock down only 29.6% of their attempts. However, they did a solid job of slowing the pace down by getting to the charity stripe, netting an average of 21.0-of-28.5 free-throws (73.6%), while owning the battle on the glass (+6.2), and moving the ball with relative ease (27.3 assists). As you can imagine, Jokic FEASTED on the habitually shorthanded Dubs, starring in all four meetings with averages of 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists, while shooting 51.9% from the floor and attempting thirty-seven free-throws. What makes this series difficult to project is that while Denver has largely played the entire season without the Murray and Porter, Golden State has been without many of their prominent figures for large portions of the campaign, and never facing them with a full complement of weapons. Basically, we know who the Nuggets are at this point and how they’ve learned to function without two of their top-three offensive threats, but the Warriors are another matter altogether. (All-Stars) Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green (much more on all three of these guys shortly) each missed at least one of those aforementioned meetings, with the triumvirate never making a single start together in any of those matchups. Malone’s charges have advanced to the second round of the playoffs in three straight seasons, and it would be naive to dismiss them doing so once again, for as long as Jokic continues to play at such a ridiculous level, this team will remain a pain in the ass for whomever they are pitted against.
Meanwhile, after missing out on the playoffs in each of the last two years, the Warriors (53-29, 3rd in Western Conference) return to the postseason as very much a question mark. Far from the unit that advanced to FIVE consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2019, Golden State has spent the bulk of the last ten weeks merely treading water as they afforded their stars all the time needed to return to full strength. After sprinting out to a 27-6 record, including a torrid 18-2 start, (Head Coach) Steve Kerr’s troops went just 26-23 the rest of the way, with those aforementioned absences playing a HUGE role in that shift. So, let’s take a moment to run down the list of injuries, shall we? First and foremost, after missing the entirety of the past two seasons due to ruptures in his ACL and Achilles, (All-Star Swingman) Klay Thompson (20.4 PTS, 42.9% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 90.2% FT, 3.9 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 16.7 PER) missed the first THRITY-EIGHT games of the schedule rehabbing from the latter malady, with Kerr and his staff monitoring him closely the rest of the way, participating in thirty-two of the final forty-four contests. Once one of the premier 3 & D talents in the Association, Thompson eventually regained his shooting touch, but has yet to reclaim his status as a plus-defender; the five-time all-Star ended the campaign on an absolute tear, averaging a staggering 36.7 points on 53.2% shooting, including 51.2% from beyond the arc, over the last three games of the campaign. And then there is (defensive dynamo) Draymond Green (7.5 PTS, 52.5% FG, 29.6% 3FG, 65.9% FT, 7.3 REB, 7.0 AST, 11.3 STL, 1.1 BLK, 14.3 PER), who after earning his fourth All-Star nod would go on to miss TWENTY-NINE consecutive games with an ailing back. Capable of defending nearly every position on the court, the 2016-2017 Defensive Player of the Year also serves as the team’s creative fulcrum in the halfcourt, leading the Dubs in assists in each of the last seven seasons, with his absence from January to early March (16-13) depriving the rotation of arguably it’s most indispensable talent. Lastly (but surely not least), (reigning scoring champion) Steph Curry (25.5 PTS, 43.7% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 92.3% FT, 5.2 REB, 6.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 21.4 PER) was effectively tabled for the final TWELVE games of the campaign due to a lingering bone bruise and sprain in his left foot. The two-time MVP utterly CARRIED them last season, and this season has seen him show signs of fatigue, with his field goal percentage (43.7%) and three-point percentage (38.0%) checking in at the lowest of his career in any season in which he’s played more than five games. In fact, 2021-2022 marks the first time in his career in which he’s netted less than 40.0% from downtown (apart from 209-2020 when he missed all but five games with a broken hand)And that’s to say nothing of various other members of the rotation who have missed significant time, be it (veteran swingman) Andre Iguodala (4.0 PTS, 38.0% FG, 23.0% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 3.2 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.7 BLK, 12.3 PER), who made only THIRTY-ONE appearances off the bench this season, while last year’s Second Overall Pick, James Wiseman, didn’t play at all following a setback in his rehab from a torn meniscus back in April of 2021. Altogether, the trio of Curry, Thompson, and Green have started only ONE game thus far, which is obviously a major red flag for the faithful out west. Granted, these guys have the benefit of having played together through a wealth of playoffs in the past, but the reality is that they are literally the only remnants left from their dynasty, with the majority of the supporting cast standing void of any real postseason experience. (Former No. One Overall Pick) Andrew Wiggins (17.2 PTS, 46.6% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 63.4% FT, 4.5 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 15.0 PER) has certainly rejuvenated his career since arriving in San Francisco, but he’s only been to the playoffs once, while (Most Improved Player of the Year candidate) Jordan Poole (18.5 PTS, 44.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 92.5% FT, 3.4 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.1 PER) has never logged a single minute past the play-in tournament. As we covered earlier, the Warriors haven’t exactly enjoyed much success against the Nuggets this year either, losing three of their four meetings in a variety of fashions. In their first meeting, a sluggish 89-86 loss at home, Kerr’s charges were forced to spend the bulk of the affair playing catchup following a dismal 16-point first quarter, with the hosts missing a ridiculous 15-of-31 free-throws (51.6%) in the narrow defeat. Their second encounter, a tightly contested 117-116 affair at Chase Center, saw the visitors saved by a three-pointer at the buzzer courtesy of Monte Morris. Golden State shot much better in this one (51.7%) but struggled mightily from three (10-of-34), and still managed to leave plenty of points at the charity stripe (16-of-24). The third meeting ended in a third straight defeat for the Dubs, this time in a spirited 131-124 contest, in which neither Curry, Thompson, nor Green featured, though Poole went off for thirty-two points on 11-of-19 shooting (57.9%), including a stellar 8-of-12 from beyond the arc (66.7%). Less than a week later they would best Denver for the first time this season, ousting them 62-42 in the second half. Curry would put on a show in this one, totaling thirty-four points on an efficient 11-of-21 shooting (52.4%), 5-of-12 from deep (41.7%), and 7-of-7 from the stripe (100.0%), while Poole added twenty-one off the bench. If the Warriors are indeed at full strength, then they certainly possess the firepower to cause a wealth of problems for ANYONE they face, but at this point it’s an open question as to how healthy Curry is, and just how the hell Kerr plans on slowing down Jokic in the halfcourt, for as good as Green is, he’s at a disadvantage with the big fella.