The Golden State Warriors are one of the surprise playoffs teams out of the Western Conference this season.
Expected in the preseason to make noise if – and only if – Andrew Bogut stayed healthy, the team appeared destined for a rough start when it was reported that Bogut could miss a big chunk of the season – and he did – due to an unstable ankle that needed more time to heal than expected.
Despite his absence, however, the Warriors found a way to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, thanks in large part to the rise of Stephen Curry – the other key player that had to stay healthy in order for the team to succeed.
Curry, who now holds the record for most 3-pointers in a single season, played 78 games and averaged a robust 23 points, four rebounds and 6.9 assists. With the help of David Lee and the addition of veterans Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, the team found a way to overachieve and won 47 games.
The Denver Nuggets, with all the depth on their roster, became an underrated juggernaut this season despite playing without a legitimate All-Star. Their recent stretch of dominance is downright scary: They have only lost three times in the last 26 games. The defense of Andre Iguodala and the development of Kosta Koufos has helped tremendously, while the return of a healthy Wilson Chandler and the ever-steady play of Andre Miller has helped propel them into one of the top three teams in the West. Their key player is point guard Ty Lawson, who has come on strongly after a poor start to the season.
Denver got the better of Golden State with a 3-1 record in the regular season, and it would have been a sweep had Iguodala’s game-winning shot at The Oracle come a half-second earlier. However, it is worth noting that Bogut didn’t play in any of those games, Wilson Chandler played in only one of four. Couple that with the current absence of sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari and it’s safe to say that we have a completely different matchup this time around.
Here are the five factors that will help decide the outcome of the first-round series between the Warriors and Nuggets:
1. The battle of the point guards factor: Curry has blossomed into a borderline superstar point guard. He is also the most important weapon on the team, so how well the Warriors do against the Nuggets will largely depend on how well Curry plays against Lawson. Both players help dictate the pace of the game and have the ability to set the tone early. Neither are likely to be able to shut down the other, so whoever is more consistently aggressive should win the battle.
When Curry is in attack mode early, that’s when he is most dangerous because once he gets his shot going, it opens up the floor for himself and everyone else. As we have seen throughout the season, it doesn’t take a whole lot to get him going. As long as effective screens are set for him, Curry should be able to free himself for good looks at the basket. If Lawson can get Curry to pick up early fouls – which Curry has a habit of doing – by attacking from the get-go, the Warriors will find themselves in trouble.
2. The depth factor: It’s no secret that the Nuggets have one of the deepest rosters in the league. With Miller, McGee, Corey Brewer, Evan Fournier and Anthony Randolph coming off the bench, they are legitimately 10 deep, with each player having a unique quality to offer. The Warriors, on the other hand, depend largely on the production of Landry and Jack. The duo has more than held its own through much of the season, but are one-sided players, meaning they can be a liability on the defensive end at times.
Rookie center Festus Ezeli plays limited minutes and has progressed on both ends of the floor but remains a work in progress and could meet his match against the more athletic McGee. Jack will have to, at the very least, find a way to neutralize the production of Miller, which is no easy task. The edge in bench production will likely go to the Nuggets.
3. Injury factor: Gallinari is out with a torn ACL, and this matters when you see the damage he has done against the Warriors this season: 20.5 points on 44 percent shooting and 7.8 rebounds. Having Gallinari at small forward also allowed Iguodala to defend Klay Thompson, but Fournier – if he starts – will get the assignment instead.
Kenneth Faried’s sprained ankle could also be an issue. Denver’s relentless power forward said he will play as long as he can walk, but can he bring the same level of intensity he normally brings on an injured ankle? Other than one strong performance, he was already largely ineffective against David Lee, who dominated him for 23.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and five assists in the regular season. Faried’s effectiveness will determine how George Karl will utilize Chandler, whose versatility allows him to take over at the power forward position if necessary.
Bogut’s ankle is also a question mark coming into the series. He missed two games after tweaking his surgically repaired ankle, before coming back in the season finale against Portland – and shot just 1-of-8 from the field. There is no telling which version of Bogut will show up for the playoffs, but having him certainly beats not having him.
4. Homecourt and experience factor: Denver has been nearly unbeatable at home; it was an absurd (and league-best) 38-3 at the Pepsi Center this season. Playing at high altitude is clearly an advantage, but three days between Games 1 and 2 will allow the Warriors some time to get used to the thinner air. Both teams are just 19-22 on the road, so beating each other away from home will not be an easy task.
In terms of experience, the Nuggets are far superior from top to bottom. Karl is a Hall of Fame level coach with an endless number of playoff games under his belt, while Golden State’s Mark Jackson is a toddler by comparison. Andre Miller has played in 46 playoff games, which is more than the total of Bogut, Andris Biedrins, Jack and Landry combined. Aside from the mentioned names, no one else on the Warriors’ roster beside Richard Jefferson has even made it to the playoffs, while most of the key players on the Nuggets have tasted playoff experience.
5. The offense-defense factor: We know both teams can score in bunches in a variety of ways. The Nuggets are constantly in motion and run like no other team to generate easy (but hard-earned) points. If not, they will have Iguodala and Lawson take turns creating for teammates. Chandler often creates shots for himself, and Miller still utilizes the post as if he is a big man.
The Warriors are the best 3-point shooting team in the league, so they often run the Horns sets to get Curry and Thompson great looks at the basket with sound screens. Lee, Landry or even Thompson can take turns in the post. Basically, there’s no shortage of offensive options for either team. The question is, which team is better equipped to get stops when necessary?
The Nuggets have sound positional defenders such as Koufos and Chandler, McGee for shot-blocking and a lock-down defender in Iguodala. The Warriors have Bogut and Ezeli to help anchor the defense, but there’s not much more, especially on the perimeter. Thompson’s defense is solid, but he is usually the casualty of over-aggression. To put it another way, they have bigger holes on the defensive end than the Nuggets do. Lee can’t guard a standing stick and Landry is right behind him, so it’s usually a disaster on the defensive end when the two are on the floor at the same time. Rookie small forward Harrison Barnes is a liability. Then there is Curry, whose lack of quickness makes it difficult to stay in front of his matchup. Usually, the team that has more defensive stoppers – or at least a better scheme – comes out victorious in the playoffs. Defense could be the biggest Achilles heel for Golden State.
Based on these factors, it’s hard to give the Warriors the nod. They are undoubtedly the underdogs. The biggest advantage they have over the Nuggets is the star power of Curry, who has shown the ability to singlehandedly take over a game. This is his first run in the playoffs, where true stars are made. The belief here is that he will shine on the brighter stage as he did in Madison Square Garden and Staples Center, and help carry his team over the top. As good as the Nuggets have been, they need a star when it’s time to win a tense game in the playoffs. Lawson isn’t yet totally consistent in that department and Iguodala has shown over the years that he is not that guy, either.
SHERIDAN: Nuggets in 7.
HUBBARD: Warriors in 6.
HEISLER: Nuggets in 6.
BERNUCCA: Nuggets in 6.
HAMILTON: Nuggets in 7.
PERKINS: Nuggets in 6.
SCHAYES: Warriors in 6.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Nuggets in 5.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Nuggets in 6.
ZAGORIA: Nuggets in 6.
PARK: Warriors in 6
James Park is the chief blogger of Sheridanhoops.com. You can find him on twitter @SheridanBlog.