Had injuries to Steph Curry and Draymond Green not impacted the Golden State Warriors season, perhaps they would have been able to hold off the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Instead, they ended up as the third seed in the Western Conference and will face off against Nikola Jokic — likely to be a two-time MVP in the very near future — and the sixth-seeded Denver Nuggets.
It figures to be a hard-fought series, even if the Warriors should still be considered the favorites coming in, and there are some significant questions for both sides to answer when things get started on Saturday night.
How much will injuries impact both teams?
Neither the Warriors or the Nuggets are coming into this series at 100 percent. For Golden State, Stephen Curry seems like he’s going to play when opens this weekend as he comes off of a foot injury that has kept him out for nearly a month. According to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, however, Curry may be on a minutes restriction to start. On top of Curry, Klay Thompson is (understandably) still getting fully back into the flow of things coming off of his two-year absence. To date, he’s not been quite the same player he was pre-injury, and Draymond Green isn’t far removed from a long absence of his own.
If Curry in particular isn’t at 100 percent, Golden State’s margin for error shrinks. On the year, the Warriors were +10.1 points better per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor per Basketball-Reference. As always, he is the engine that makes them go and the Warriors status as healthy favorites (-240 for the series) is based on Curry operating as his usual self, even if in limited minutes.
As for the Nuggets, Jamal Murray’s possible return hangs over this series. As of now, he’s considered doubtful for this series, but not ruled out of the playoffs altogether. Even if he can come back, either in this series a possible second-round series, is it even fair to expect much of Murray after a year away as he just comes back? Had he been able to return in the regular season would have been one thing. A playoff return against a team like Golden State is something different, and more complicated, altogether.
What is the Warriors’ plan to defend Nikola Jokic?
Fun fact: In the four games Denver and Golden State played in the regular season, Draymond Green didn’t play a single minute. In those matchups, Nikola Jokic averaged 28 points, 16 rebounds and 9 assists with the Nuggets going 3-1.
Now that Green is back — and starting to play at the level he was at the beginning of the regular season prior to his injury — the Warriors have more looks to throw at Jokic. Kevon Looney will probably start on him, but putting Green at center and having him guard Jokic for stretches is absolutely going to happen. As usual, those lineups are also effective too, with the Warriors outscoring opponents by +10.1 points per 100 possessions when Green is at center per Cleaning The Glass.
How Steve Kerr balances those lineups will be a key point in the series, as will how they decide to defend everyone around Jokic as he posts up. Jokic is too good to just defend one-on-one inside — he’s shooting a career-best 72% at the rim this year, per Cleaning The Glass — so he’ll have to be doubled at times. But how aggressive will those doubles be? Will they be a hard double or simply the closest help defender sliding over just a bit closer to Jokic? And will Kerr elect to be more or less aggressive with them when Green is at the five? The key, more than anything else, may be finding the right balance of aggression and walling off cutters from darting and zipping into the lane around Jokic, allowing him to create easy buckets for his teammates.
Which X-Factor, Golden State’s Jordan Poole or Denver’s Bones Hyland, can stand out?
A key development for the Warriors this year has been the growth of Jordan Poole. He spent time in the G League as recently as last season and wasn’t part of the Warriors teams that won three titles in four years. Now, in his third season, Poole has evolved to be a part of the Warriors’ closing lineups this year and is among the candidates for the league’s Most Improved Player award. Per Cleaning The Glass, he’s made a leap from having a below average true shooting percentage a year ago among guards to a true shooting percentage in the top 20 percent of guards, per Cleaning The Glass, and he’s done that in nearly three times the minutes he played last season.
With Curry potentially on a minutes restriction, Poole becomes even more important. If his regular season play carries over into the postseason, he can help Golden State’s offense thrive when Curry sits. This absolutely could tilt the series in Golden State’s favor. He’s also perhaps the most trustworthy role player on the Warriors roster, particularly as Andrew Wiggins’ shooting has dropped off since the All-Star break. That matters not just here, but in the future playoff rounds if the Warriors have a title run in them this season.
For Denver, Bones Hyland has been an immediate impact rookie at guard — a necessary success while Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have been out. He takes care of the ball, has improved as a passer as the year has gone on, and is shooting 36% from three and 60% at the rim. Those are good numbers in the exact spots where Jokic can best find teammates for open shots. He also excels at getting out on the break, either getting to the rim or pulling up from three with confidence.
There are other x-factor options for the Nuggets, namely Will Barton and Monte Morris. But Hyland has shown something right away and plays a dynamic brand of basketball that arguably gives him a higher ceiling than either Barton or Morris. He can’t replace what Murray offers in full, but he’s perhaps the closest Denver has right now and in this series he is going to have to provide them with a lift off the bench to keep up with Golden State offensively.