Everyone loves a compelling narrative heading into an athletic competition. It’s one of the reasons why UFC fighters have continuously tried to be more controversial in the more recent years in hopes of building up heated rivalries and drawing more pay-per-view buys. A gripping backstory catapulted the most recent Duke-UNC games to network television ratings that hadn’t been seen for years in college basketball. Nevertheless, these surrounding narratives are never the end-all, be-all in sports, particularly for the more popular leagues.
The Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors do not have the most compelling backstory heading into the 2022 NBA Playoffs. Sure, the only time the two franchises met in the 2013 postseason marked the emergence of the Splash Brothers on the playoff stage as the underdog, Mark Jackson-led Warriors took down an overachieving Nuggets team that had ransacked the New York Knicks of their young talent via the Carmelo Anthony trade. Another interesting plot point going into this matchup is that this will be the first time the Warriors will officially be in the playoffs since their five straight finals appearances.
Nevertheless, this series pales in storylines compared to the new rivalry on the block between the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls (if anyone needs a reminder), a heated role reversal series from last year between the enigmatic Brooklyn Nets and the red-hot Boston Celtics, and even the Timberwolves-Grizzlies matchup, which pits two young exciting franchises against each other (and Patrick Bevelrey against Ja Morant). However, from a stylistic standpoint, the Warriors-Nuggets series will be the most entertaining series to follow and a breakdown of each team’s current state, strengths, weaknesses, as well as a final prediction, proves why.
Golden State Warriors
Current Team Outlook
It’s been a successfully complicated season for the Bay Area Dubs. Over the first 82 days of the NBA regular season, the Warriors were in first place in the Western Conference for 63 of those days. Then January 10 hit and we haven’t seen them in the driver’s seat ever since, as the franchise was in significant danger of finishing fourth or worse in the conference until the last game of the season. Warriors fans already know a lot of reasons why the most recent NBA dynasty ended the last 41 games of the season with a measly 23-18 record, finishing third in the conference.
Most of these issues can be attributed to the Dubs’ health situation and growing pains reintegrating Klay Thompson back into the starting lineup after more than two years of inactivity. These issues started with Draymond Green feeling tightness in his left calf on January 9, which eventually pointed towards a lower back issue for one of the most elite defenders of this generation. Green missed a total of 36 games this season with the Warriors posting a 19-17 record in his absence.
Additionally, franchise centerpiece Steph Curry has recently struggled with injuries, such as a sprained ligament in his left foot. Curry missed a total of 15 games in the second half of the season compared to the three games he missed in the first 41 games, with the Warriors posting a record of 8-10 without him. Still in recovery, Curry’s status for Game 1 of the Warriors’ playoff opener at the Chase Center remains unclear. While Klay Thompson looks to be getting back into form, the Baby-Faced Assassin’s uncertain status heading into this series makes the Warriors one of the hardest teams to predict this postseason.
While many of the past great Warriors’ teams had elite defenses, this is one of those rare years where it’s very clear that this side of the ball is the Dubs’ strength. Overall, the Warriors were second in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6, only behind the Celtics in that metric. On offense, Steve Kerr’s squad during the regular season was an elite passing team and led the league in assist rating. In addition, despite being down in three-point field goal percentage, coming in at still solid eighth in the league (36.4%), the Warriors still made more than 14 threes a game (third in the league). A metric that should go up if the team is fully healthy with the greatest shooting backcourt of all time together alongside snipers like Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins.
However, most notable among the advanced stats was the Warriors’ pace of play compared to their most recent successful squads, which sat at 15th in the league. Usually in the top five for this metric, the Dubs leaned on their efficient shooting, placing third in effective field goal percentage and fourth in true shooting percentage, and elite defense this season. The drop in pace, overall, makes sense considering this is the league’s sixth oldest team, showing Steve Kerr’s ability to adapt. A strength that will certainly be tested in this series will be the Dubs’ elite interior defense, which placed in the top five in opponent points in the paint per game, despite not having anyone over 6’9 on their roster, other than the inactive James Wiseman.
Aside from the obvious health concerns, a lot of the Warriors’ struggles this season were similar to the elite teams they’ve had in the past. Turnovers, turnovers, and more turnovers. This year, it was even worse than usual with the Warriors ranking second-last in turnover percentage at 15.0. With the Bay Area Dubs’ mediocrity on the offensive glass, throwing away possessions against the slow-paced, elite defensive rebounding Denver Nuggets could be the difference between surviving and advancing and going home early.
Particularly in late situations, where Golden State was mediocre with a 23-19 record heading into clutch time (leading by five or less with five minutes left), in large part due to their 23rd ranked offensive rating in these situations. The Dubs shooting drastically decreased to an effective field goal percentage of 47.7% (19th) and a true shooting percentage of 53.2% (23rd), a significant deviation from past teams. Pointing to the need for the Warriors to be fully healthy to unlock the success they’ve had in past with their core of Curry, Thompson, and Green in crunch time.
How They Matchup Against The Nuggets
Golden State went 1-3 in their four games against the Denver Nuggets this year. That stat is a bit deceiving as while Curry played in three of these games, Green and Thompson didn’t play in any of these games, while the Nuggets were, for the most part, healthy. Throughout these contests, some key trends emerged. First off, the Nuggets struggled against the Warriors’ younger, more athletic players like Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody. A standout performance was when both Poole and Moody scored 30 or more points each in their game against the Nuggets on March 7, which was a career-high for Moody.
With their recent health issues, the Warriors will be encouraged to use their young depth to push the pace and get the Nuggets fatigued and into potential mismatches. Hopefully forcing Denver to switch constantly to get Nikola Jokic into defensive one-on-one matchups against Golden State guards. Speaking of the Joker, the defending and current favorite for MVP averaged 28 points, 8.75 assists, and 15.75 rebounds in these four clashes. Aside from dominating the boards, these extraordinary numbers were around the Nuggets center’s yearly averages and the Warriors did a solid job forcing the Joker into 5.25 turnovers per game.
As shown in their matchup against the Nuggets on December 28, Steve Kerr threw the kitchen sink at the four-time all-star with multiple coverages. However, the Warriors found the most success with well-executed double teams, while being in a position to provide support for the helper. Draymond Green will be one of the keys to this series to not provide help coverage for starting center Kevon Looney but also to give the Serbian big man another look in a one-on-one situation. A role he has done quite well in, in the past. Of course, still, at times, Jokic is going to Jokic.
Current Team Outlook
When fully healthy, the Denver Nuggets are most certainly a title contender if not the favorite to win it all. The only problem is the mile-high franchise hasn’t had a full roster of health for about two years and has had its worst share of luck this year with injuries with both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. being unavailable for all but nine games. Overall, it has been an incredible accomplishment by coach Michael Malone, Nikola Jokic, and the rest of the roster that the Nuggets have been able to stay well above .500 for most of the year.
Similar to their tendency to start off every series down 3-1 in the 2020 playoffs, Denver for the past two years has been plagued by slow starts to their seasons but has always finished strong. Michael Malone’s squad started off the year 22-19, but finished 26-15. With Porter Jr. and Murray unlikely to return, the team will not be undergoing any drastic personnel changes going into the postseason. However, one late-season addition that has certainly helped the Nuggets has been Demarcus Cousins, who played well in his limited minutes down the stretch.
A trend to watch going into this series is that Nuggets did necessarily use their home court to their advantage during the regular season, posting a 23-18 record at home and a 25-16 record on the road. A very surprising metric for a team that plays at altitude 41 games a year. Even though, when digging into the Nuggets’ style of play, it’s not necessarily shocking why this was the case as their pace of play was one of the slower ones in the NBA, coming in at 20th. Here, we have a limited but dangerous team with a good combination of youth and experience that the Warriors cannot take for granted.
It’s Nikola Jokic’s world and we’re just living in it with this team. The Serbian Superman became the first player since Giannis Antetokounmpo to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks and placed first in the entire league in PER for the second year in a row. In addition to his defense improving with every season, Jokic has spearheaded Denver’s elite offense for years, including this regular season, where the Nuggets were sixth in offensive rating, first in effective field goal percentage, and first in true shooting percentage.
While Denver has always left a lot to be desired over the years on defense, the Nuggets did a very solid job limiting second-chance opportunities and led the league in defensive rebounding percentage while being fourth in total rebound percentage. Similar to their opponents, Michael Malone’s squad was a terrific passing team over the regular season and was somewhat able to limit their turnovers, at least compared to the Warriors, as the Nuggets were sixth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. So, despite all the adversity, Denver was able to maintain their resilient, efficient identity which has and will continue to make them a threat in the West for years to come.
Similar to their opponents, the biggest issue with the Nuggets was out of their control, health. This issue is probably not going to be resolved going forward, while the Warriors should be at full strength, at least with their core, at some point in the series. Without Murray and Porter Jr., the Nuggets lack a true secondary scorer that can consistently get their own shot. Which is why, despite Nikola Jokic’s success at the end of games (he was the league’s fourth leading scorer in clutch time), the Nuggets were mediocre on offense in close contests.
Finishing the season as the 18th best team in clutch-time offensive rating and 12th in the league in defensive rating, Denver’s lack of a specialty at the end of close games will certainly be a cause for concern going into their matchup with the Warriors. Additionally, the Nuggets struggled throughout the season keeping teams out of the paint, giving up 49.8 points per game, indicating that the Warriors should look to consistently attack Jokic off the bounce and at the basket to limit his offensive impact. However, to Denver’s benefit, the Warriors were not great at exploiting teams’ weak interiors this year, coming in at 25th in points per game in the paint.
How They Matchup Against The Warriors
This is a very odd situation where you have a top 20 player of all time, that is still somewhat in his prime, not be the best player in a playoff series. It will be debated throughout this clash and will probably be concurred the other way around, should the favorite win, but Nikola Jokic is the best player in this first-round matchup. Nevertheless, Steph Curry can absolutely thrive in this series if he’s close to himself physically as the Nuggets have given up the fourth-most points to point guards in the NBA this season. Denver will give Curry multiple looks (Campazzo, Hyland, Morris, Barton) and force Kevon Looney and Draymond Green to become playmakers, but they still should not be able to provide the greatest shooter ever many problems.
While the stars will be the draw for this series, a matchup to watch going in will be when the future hall of famers are not on the floor, as the Warriors have one of the strongest bench units in the league (plus/minus of +2), while the Nuggets have struggled with their depth (bench plus/minus -1.1). There will certainly be an effort on Denver’s part to slow the pace down as they always have throughout the regular season to ensure that their starters are able to stay on the floor as much as possible. Overall, despite these obstacles, with their experience and success on the road, Denver will certainly be a threat to win any game in this series, especially if Steph is out for any games.
There are brilliant basketball minds aplenty in a series that pits potentially the best player in the NBA against the team with the biggest upside. Both teams are exceptionally experienced with elite coaches that have both rejuvenated these franchises, inspiring a beautifully unselfish form of basketball with their arrivals. While we’re not guaranteed to have consistently high scoring games, like we would be if both teams met in the past, the defensive side of the ball is as intriguing as the offensive side, as both teams have had games this year that have ranged from 89-86 to 131-124. The Jokic-Green collisions will be a joy to watch alongside the elite perimeter shooting we’re always bound to see in Warriors’ game.
While the certainty around the Nuggets’ health concerns is unfortunate, the uncertainty on who might be available for the Warriors’ playoff opener and throughout the entire series could be cause for concern for the Dubs chemistry-wise. Especially since this version of the Warriors has rarely seen the floor together this year. Still, Game 1 can be considered as close to a must-win as possible for the Nuggets as the Warriors will only seemingly get better as the series goes on. Overall, the superior team should pull this one out, but expect this series to be very tense, especially over the first few games. Denver won’t be getting swept this year and they’ve had way more shocking playoff series wins just in the past two years. Warriors in 6.