The Golden State Warriors are set to make their return to the playoffs after a two-year absence, and standing in their way are the Denver Nuggets, who join their fourth consecutive postseason. The series will be filled with star power, as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green suit up for Golden State, while reigning MVP Nikola Jokic leads the charge for Denver.
The Warriors took an indirect path to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, starting off as one of the best teams in the NBA before injuries and an uncharacteristic shooting slump from Curry led to a series of up-and-down months. They finished strong, however, winning their last five games to hold off the Dallas Mavericks for the third seed.
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Jokic may win his second straight MVP award after carrying the Nuggets to a 48-34 record and the No. 6 seed in the West despite the absence of running mates Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. for nearly the entire season. The transcendent big man averaged 27.1 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game, becoming the first player in NBA history to tally over 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists in a single season.
While the door is not necessarily closed on a potential return for Murray during the postseason, Jokic will likely continue to carry the brunt of the offensive responsibility in the first-round matchup with the Warriors. On the other side, Golden State is dealing with its own injury concerns, as Curry is expected to be on a minutes limit during at least the first game of the series after missing the final 12 games of the regular season due to a foot injury.
Overall it should be an entertaining series to start off the postseason for both teams. Below is the series schedule along with three storylines to watch.
(3) Golden State Warriors vs. (6) Denver Nuggets
All times Eastern
- Game 1: Warriors 123, Nuggets 107
- Game 2: Warriors 126, Nuggets 106
- Game 3: Warriors 118, Nuggets 113
- Game 4: Nuggets 126, Warriors 121
- Game 5: Warriors 102, Nuggets 98
1. Like riding a bike?
It's a welcome sight for Warriors fans to watch their beloved trio of Curry, Thompson and Green on the court again. The problem is, they've played a total of 11 minutes together over the past two-plus years. Warriors coach Steve Kerr doesn't seem concerned about their chemistry given their overwhelming amount of postseason history together, but there's still going to be a feeling-out process as Curry, Thompson and Green try to lead the Warriors into the second round. It's also notable that all three have dealt with injuries this season, with Thompson slowly easing his way back into a full minutes load, Green coming off of a significant back issue and Curry making his return in Game 1.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the recent emergence of Jordan Poole, who averaged 25.8 points and 6.2 assists on 37 percent 3-point shooting in the 12 games that Curry missed to end the season. With all the Warriors' regular starters healthy, Poole will likely once again be relegated to the bench, which will require an adjustment from both him and his teammates. He and Curry were excellent on the court together this season, with a plus-15.2 net rating in almost 1,000 minutes, but the potential closing lineup of Curry, Thompson, Green, Poole and Andrew Wiggins has logged zero minutes as a group.
Will the Warriors' corporate knowledge be enough for them to jump seamlessly back into the beautiful, flowing offense and defense we've seen from them in the past? Or will there be some bumbles and stumbles along the way that give the Nuggets an advantage? Those will be the primary questions during this first-round matchup.
2. Jokic is a problem
Kerr said it best when asked whether Jokic is more dangerous as a scorer or a passer: "Yes." Therein lies the dilemma for the Warriors, as the MVP is equally capable of shredding defenses by creating his own offense or setting up teammates for easy buckets. Against Golden State, the league's No. 2 defense, Jokic averaged 28 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists as the Nuggets won three of their four matchups this season.
As important as Kevon Looney has been for the Warriors defensively this season, he's only 6-foot-9 and averages 20 minutes per game. With James Wiseman already shut down for the season, during non-Looney minutes the Warriors are either looking at Nemanja Bjelica (yikes) or Draymond Green playing center. Green has proven more than capable of defending bigger players, but Jokic is a different beast. Particularly with Green coming off of a back injury, you have to worry about the toll it will take on him physically if he's required to guard Jokic for extended minutes throughout the series.
Normally an undersized team would be able to take the ball out of a dominant center's hands through double-teams, but that's a frightening prospect against Jokic, who can and will make every pass in the book to pick apart coverages. It will be fascinating to see how Kerr approaches the situation, and how Jokic responds.
"That's what makes him special, it's pick your poison," Kerr said of Jokic. "He can score one-on-one down on the block, brilliant passer. Biggest thing for us is we can't give up the easy stuff."
Easier said than done.
3. Who steps up for Denver?
Safe to say that Jokic is going to produce, particularly given his track record in the postseason. But with Murray and Porter potentially sidelined for the entire series, the Nuggets are going to need multiple role players to contribute on a nightly basis offensively. In theory the most natural scorer in the starting unit is Will Barton, but he's had a roller coaster season. Aaron Gordon had an excellent year, averaging 15 points on 52 percent shooting, but he's not exactly proficient at creating his own shot and shot just 33 percent from the 3-point line.
The answer might be rookie Bones Hyland, who finished the season with a flourish, averaging 14 points and 4.6 assists in just 22 minutes on 48/41/84 shooting splits over his final 20 games. This is his first postseason, but he is certainly not afraid of big moments and could earn more playing time if the Nuggets are struggling to produce outside of Jokic.
Overall it's unlikely that one of the Denver role players is suddenly going to average 25 points per game. The hope will be that each game at least one of them gets hot, and can help keep the offense afloat in the brief time that Jokic rests. For the season, the Nuggets' offensive rating fell from 117.3 to 105 with Jokic on the bench. With an offense as dynamic as the Warriors, if the Nuggets are unable to keep pace with the MVP on the bench, it could mean the difference in what should be a series full of close games.