Thorpe breaks down West's Round 1
Picking Warriors/Nuggets, Jazz/Mavs, and Grizzlies/Wolves
BY DAVID THORPE
Warriors would roll Nuggets with 100-percent Steph
Instead, it’s far trickier
Are these the Warriors?
On December 17, the Warriors beat the Celtics to bring their record to 24-5. They had crushed teams like the Suns, Nets, Bulls, Raptors, Cavs, Clippers. Jordan Poole had emerged, to add to their collection of stars. The defense was the best in the league, and Klay Thompson was due back soon. Every advanced metric picked the Warriors to make the Finals.
On December 18, they faced the Raptors missing Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Kevon Looney, Andre Iguodala, Jordan Poole, Otto Porter Jr., and James Wiseman. This kicked off a period when the Warriors missed various of their best players for the rest of the season. Over the next couple of months they got blown out by the Mavericks, Jazz, Timberwolves, Bucks, Clippers, and Grizzlies. They lost to the Knicks and Lakers.
During their blue period, the Warriors played the Nuggets four times. Draymond Green missed all those games. Klay Thompson missed three, Stephen Curry missed two, and other players including super defender Gary Payton II missed some as well. The Nuggets won three of four, including two thrillers. But the Warriors won the last one, in Denver, without Curry, Thompson, or Green.
Those three stars have played just 11 minutes together this whole season.
Curry has practiced with the team and may play in Game 1, possibly with minutes restrictions. Green is not just on the court, but back. Klay seemed to find his swagger and shooting the last few weeks of the season and made 45 percent of his 3s over his final six games–all with Curry out. The Warriors have won their last five games. Their last impressive win came March 23rd in Miami where the Warriors won without any of their three big names on the court.
We know this Warriors team has greatness in it, but that is mostly based on what they have been months and years ago. It’s very hard to gauge what they are now.
Who can help Nikola Jokic?
The Nuggets, on the other hand, feature the world’s best player, Nikola Jokic. His talent as a passer and scorer is not matched in the game today, and he has become a nearly elite paint protector. His supporting cast is fine, at best, and many would struggle if they were not paired with Jokic.
Jokic makes everyone around him better. The Nuggets are “Team Scrappy”—proven to be a tough out in each of the last two postseasons. They are not without drama though; stars Jamal Murray and Michel Porter Jr. could potentially return from a season-long (Murray) and near season-long (MPJ) absence, which could hurt or help.
In their absence, there is an argument that Bones Hyland, a first-round draft pick last summer, has been their second-most effective player down the stretch.
How will the Warriors’ defense work against the best player in the world?
The Nuggets offense runs through Jokic. The Warriors have two big but not tall bodies in Green and Looney. They bang on Jokic and force him to make tougher shots over them rather than around them as he does to less disciplined defenders.
No matter, Jokic shot an astounding 58 percent from the field this year, and during the second half of the season, he got 85 percent of his shots inside the 3-point line, 41 percent of his made baskets were unassisted, and 63 percent of his points came in the paint. Translation—he excels in isolation because he still gets to where he is most effective: inside.
Jokic led all elite scorers in effective field goal percentage (at 62 percent, far ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns, at 59.1). Although Draymond Green has yet to try this season, I don’t think anyone on the Warriors will turn Jokic into a less-than-stellar performer. (Though it needs to be noted that Jokic has struggled mightily from 3 against the Warriors the last two seasons. It isn’t clear to me why.)
A healthy Warriors team has speed on defense, so I expect them to mix up the way they defend ball screens with Jokic, using switches, drop coverage, show-and-recover techniques, and traps. They will be wise to be unpredictable to frustrate Jokic’s calculations. Keep him guessing and try to steal some of his passes. If you’re lucky you’ll turn him into only an elite scorer.
Can the Warriors keep the Nuggets off the offensive glass?
Besides Jokic, the Nuggets’ other advantage is on the offensive glass. When either Green or Looney sits, Jokic, Jeff Green, Aaron Gordon, and DeMarcus Cousins can destroy the backboards. Denver isn’t a team of great shooters but in three of their four games against the Warriors they got 37 offensive rebounds to the Warriors 24. Extra attempts mean a lot in a close series.
Who will guard Klay Thompson?
In addition to Curry and defensive speed, the Warriors have a few real strengths. Thompson has the size and the talent to score over the small Nuggets guards with ease. With the attention Curry draws, Klay should get plenty of opportunities to use that advantage like a sledgehammer. He scored 114 points in their final three games. He’s ready for a big series on offense.
Is it Kevon Looney’s time to shine?
Looney and Green loom large too. The Nuggets will slough off them when they don't have the ball. The Warriors’ Cuisinart offense is designed to chop up teams who do that, running their shooters off of those two players setting screens. If their man is dropped off, they can’t be up to help on shots off screens. That’s fine against most teams, disaster against the Warriors. Both players must also look to cut when no one is guarding them sometimes, so the Warriors are not just depending on outside shots alone. Looney averaged eleven points per game–way more than his average–against the Nuggets this season. As the longstanding president of the Kevon Looney fan club, I have no issue saying that right now, in what is (for contract reasons) very likely his last season as a Warrior, it’s the perfect time with the perfect matchup for Looney to show what a good all-around player he is.
Will Steph be 100 percent? With a healthy Steph, the Warriors are heavy favorites. Without him it’s a toss up.
How will Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole handle the playoffs? It’s easy to project the grizzled Warriors veterans to play well. Wiggins and Poole, though, have played in five playoff games between them. Their speed can really bother Denver, and their scoring will be essential if Thompson struggles to score against Gordon. So they’re important. Are they reliable?
Will the referees deliver for Denver? Thanks to Jokic, the Nuggets shoot a ton of free throws. The Warriors foul a lot, 26th in the league. If the Nuggets get to the line and own the offensive glass, they can win even without shooting well.
Will Draymond’s shot fall? The Warriors have 34 wins when Green made 3s at 33 percent or better. In his 12 losses, he made nine percent.
How good can Bones be? An instant offense guy, Hyland is Denver’s version of Jordan Poole. Just 21, he averaged over 14 points a game in March and made 48 percent of his 3s. Is he, finally, the Nuggets’ second reliable isolation scorer?
Third in points in the paint
Second in Effective Field Goal and True Shooting percentages
26th in turnovers per game
26th in opponent points off turnovers
Seventh in opponent points in the paint
Seventh in opponent field goal percentage
Eighth in turnovers forced per game
Sixth in points off turnovers
Fourth in steals
*All team stats 2/14/22 to present
SNEAKY GOOD LINEUPS
Warriors: Curry, Jordan Poole, Thompson, Wiggins, Looney
Plus-48.8 in 44 minutes
The Warriors found a new-look death lineup when Green was out, and it’s a doozy. Four shooters, two speedsters (Wiggins and Poole), and an excellent screener and defender in Looney who plays like he’s ready to coach a team the second he retires as a player. It’s their best lineup this season.
Nuggets: Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Gordon, Jeff Green, Jokic.
Plus-18.6 in 153 minutes
One of their best overall rotations because they don’t turn it over much and play smash-mouth defense. Gordon would get to match up with Thompson, a much better cover for the Nuggets than any of their guards.
DAVID THORPE’S PREDICTION
WARRIORS IN 7
If Curry is healthy, the Warriors roll. They have two perfect guys to keep Jokic from putting up historic numbers. The Nuggets’ defense isn’t good enough to keep up with the Cuisinart.
At the other extreme, if Curry misses the entire series, then the Warriors offense likely isn’t good enough to really punish the Nuggets’ suspect defense.
What about if Curry comes back for most of the games, and isn’t quite himself? That’s the most likely scenario, making the result tough to guess. In the end, I have to go with the team that was better most of the season–despite missing Thompson, who appears ready to be a plus producer.
THE WISDOM OF INFORMED CROWDS PREDICTION
The Jazz would beat the Luka-less Mavericks
The only question that matters: Will Luka play?
Had Luka Doncic not limped off the court at the end of their last game, I’d have picked the Mavs in five or six.