The Golden State Warriors are going to win this series. In seven games, on the road, in the altitude, and in front of a national TV audience.
I think I got that over with. Now let's get to the details: perhaps the most striking storyline is the perception that the two teams appear to have a similar up-tempo strategy that forces their opponents to play at a break-neck speed that is physically and mentally draining.
But that isn't the case, at all. Looking at a broad statistical comparison, the Warriors are sixth in the NBA with 96.3 possessions per 48 minutes. The Denver Nuggets, on the same hand, rank second with 97.3 possessions per game, according to Hoopdata. So they'll be going up and down the floor, jacking shots up, dunking on each other, and ultimately ending with a wild buzzer-beater. Right?
Borrowing a line from Socrates, "All I know is that I know nothing".
Face it, we know the Miami Heat are going to dispatch the Milwaukee Bucks in about five games. The Houston Rockets? Great storyline with that one guy James Harden, but it'd be a miracle if they win a single game. Hawks vs. Pacers? All I know is that I'll be hitting the snooze button repeatedly trying to pay attention to that one.
But this series between Curry's sharp-shooting Warriors against high-flying, surprisingly defensive Nuggets promises to have you lose your collective shit at least once a quarter.
But hey, I'm not going to spend a couple thousand words waxing philosophical on Stephen Curry's shooting arc or the trajectory of Andre Miller's alley-oops.
Despite the uncertainty of a series between two similar, but totally different teams, we can glean a few facts from their early-season matchups and the juxtaposition of their aggregate statistics.
It's hard to gauge much truth from their four games against each other because the last time they played each other, it was a day after Colin Kaepernick had eviscerated the Green Bay Packers (1/12/13). Since then, Ty Lawson has gone down with a plantar fascia injury, Danilo Gallinari has a torn ACL, Andrew Bogut is moving around a basketball court, and Curry has shot a bunch of threes. It makes an already predictably unpredictable series that much more erratic. We have no idea how these teams look against each other.
Despite playing at similar paces, let's look at the key difference between the two teams. According to Synergy Sports, the Nuggets are ranked 20th in the NBA on spot-up plays with 0.94 PPP (points per play) while the Warriors are ranked 4th with 1.05 PPP. In other words, the Warriors can shoot and the Nuggets cannot. However, they play at the same pace and look to run at the same speed.
One team runs in transition looking to get to the basket any way possible (Nuggets) and the other runs in transition with shooters sprinting to the corner for spot-up opportunities (Warriors).
Both teams are tied for 6th in the league with 1.17 points per play in transition. Same pace, but a wholly different style. So what do these two teams do differently that will give them a proverbial leg up in the series?
Golden State Warriors' strengths in this series
It's too easy to just say Stephen Curry. Even though he is the best shooter in the NBA, the Nuggets defense will swarm him off screens, off the dribble, and maybe even up the court (though Andre Miller might object to this). Shutting him down might not be as simple as a "Say, let's put Andre Iguodala and watch him chase Curry around triple-screens for 48 minutes!" That's not indicative of what the Nuggets have done this year.
The Warriors best shot at keeping pace with an overall 11th-ranked defense, according to NBA.com, is to take advantage of the controlled fast break. The Nuggets will want to run, and this benefits both teams. However, the Warriors don't have the necessary athletes to keep pace for 48 whole minutes. What they do have are shooters all over the floor and a solid point guard in Jarrett Jack that can control the point of attack.
According to Synergy Sports, the Nuggets actually own the best transition defense in the league, but Curry's shooting is second-to-none.
Fine, that was just an excuse to show the record-breaking three from Curry. But watch closely and you notice Portland losing track of the players down the court. In the end, Victor Claver recovers well but when it's a shooter like Curry, it isn't good enough. Granted, these were the backups and it's highly unlikely that a focused team like the Nuggets will let him run down the court so freely.
After watching the four games of Nuggets' defense against Curry, I saw no dramatic tilts in their defense towards Curry. They elected to put Corey Brewer on him when Jack was on the floor and left Lawson on Curry to guard the pick-and-rolls. Lawson left Curry open on numerous occasions in the type of help defense that would leave your JV coach beet-red in embarrassment. The few times that Iguodala took on Curry, the sharpshooter got the ball out of his hands quickly to Lee. Of Curry's 594 three-point attempts, he's shot 120 of them in transition, and at the highest clip, at 54.2 percent.
I couldn't find a better video and couldn't make the clip but you'll just have to trust me on the sequence before 2:19.
Corey Brewer is an excellent defender but he gambles a lot and Curry can take advantage of his aggressiveness especially in a series so tightly contested. Here we see Brewer packing in the paint to stop a Jack drive and is ultimately late on closing out. There were a bunch of that in the four games against the Nuggets. Again, we're likely to see schemes change but if you're not closing in the regular season...let's just say old habits die hard.
Besides the transition shooting, the Warriors own excellent spot-up shooters in Curry and Thompson. For Curry, I'll lump together the pick-and-roll jump shot and Thompson's pindown isolation sets.
Whereas Barnes isn't yet able to master the intricacies of the post-up footwork and passing, Thompson has a knack for scoring off an isolation post-up which he only started going to a couple weeks ago. If he can do this against Andre Miller and Ty Lawson, this forces Karl to switch Iguodala or Brewer on him, releasing some pressure off Curry.
One would think that the Nuggets will have a better game-plan against Curry this time around—it's unlikely they'll repeatedly play back on his screens and spot-up shots—but even the best defenders can lose focus. And Curry only needs a split second to nail a three.
The Warriors go as the guards go and that is never more evident in the shooting noted above.
Denver Nuggets' strengths in this series
I spent an inordinate amount of time on what the Warriors should be able to do but I haven't even gotten to the Nuggets' strengths—and there are a lot of them.
It's perhaps a bit counterintuitive to stock up on so much depth and have those same minutes drop off when the playoffs begin, but the Nuggets don't lose much against the Warriors without Danilo Gallinari. Evan Fournier, Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer form a battalion of lengthy wings that may not scare contenders like the Oklahoma City Thunder but should be more than effective against the Warriors.
Chandler shoots 41.3 percent from three and Fournier is no slouch, either (40.7 percent in limited attempts). The most-used five-man lineup for the Warriors (without Gallo) is the Miller-Iggy-Brewer-Chandler-McGee. That doesn't bode well for David Lee or Andrew Bogut, who will have to spend the majority of the time running up and down the court in pursuit.
Contrast that with Golden State shooting 37.11 percent of their shots in the paint. With Lee unable to stop most players and Bogut still not healthy and out-of-shape, look for the Nuggets to dominate the key in the majority of the games.
If Faried is healthy, that's another added dimension to their offensive repertoire. When he is on the court along with Koufos or McGee, that usually means he'll draw the matchup against David Lee. According to SynergySports, the Nuggets are fourth in the league on putbacks and Faried accounts for over 28 percent of those plays.
Can Bogut make a difference? Perhaps, but we'd have to see it first before counting on it. Right now, we can count on the boundless energy supplied by the droves of forwards the Nuggets employ. Keeping up with the Nuggets on the boards and in transition are particular strengths for the Nuggets.
I've spoken at length as to how the Nuggets failed to guard Curry in four games this season but that was eons ago. They not only have the athletes, but own the smarts as well to shut down Curry. They can do a variety of things, all revolving taking the ball out of his hands and forcing Jack to beat them. Like we've seen so often this year, Jack enjoys the
Kobe-ball hero-ball and has looked off Curry on more than several occasions. They can double-team the pick with Faried, play into his chest with Iguodala, or have a chaser in Brewer hound him like Avery Bradley did. It's up to Jackson to figure out what to do (more on that later).
Denver Nuggets' weaknesses in this series
While Gallo's injury has been a little overstated, the athleticism of the Nuggets hasn't exactly translated on the defensive boards. With the athleticism of Faried, Iguodala and numerous others, they've somehow finished the season fourth-worst in defensive rebounding percentage at 71.8 percent. Somehow, the Warriors are best, if you must know. On the other side of the ball, the Nuggets are first in offensive rebounding percentage.
What's that say? Well, it means they don't box out and are out of position on defensive possessions. It's much easier to run towards the basket unimpeded the way Faried does and wow the crowd with rim-rattling put-back dunks, but they lack in the man-on-man rebounding department. A skill with which Mark Jackson has instilled in his team.
So while the Nuggets will and should dominate the paint on offense, David Lee and Carl Landry should have their way as well.
Golden State Warriors' weaknesses in this series
I hate harping on the Warriors defense as it's been vastly improved this whole season but it'll be tough to withstand any variation of a Ty Lawson pick-and-roll. If Curry/Thompson/Jack aren't able to stay in front of Lawson, the conclusion is as predictable as an Andris Biedrins free throw.
Festus Ezeli's quickness may allow Jackson to play him a little more but it's likely the minutes will go to Landry when Bogut isn't able to keep up for long.
The altitude is obviously a concern but the Nuggets have a losing record on the road. Stealing one in Denver exponentially increases the chances of a series win.
The last aspect of the two teams delves into the micro-management of the two teams: the coaching. Coach Karl is in his 33rd season coaching, with 1,000 wins. Mark Jackson is in his second season and is closing in on number 100. Karl puts his head down whenever he sees another JaVale "Shaqtin' a Fool" play. Jackson rarely shows frustration, instead choosing to apply his Sunday morning speeches into in-huddle encouragements.
One's a veteran that's seen it all, coaching the Seattle Supersonics to the NBA Finals; the other a rookie coach that was playing for the Indiana Pacers at the same time. Is it a glaring weakness for the Warriors? Perhaps not, Jackson has done a great job this season handling his players and schemes.
But it'll be something to keep in mind when Karl throws out his first insane lineup in some variation of Lawson-Faried-Iggy-Fournier-Chandler. What will Jackson do when Karl flips his best defender on Curry and takes away the most lethal player on both sides of the ball? Maybe Jackson will force Karl to adapt with a Landry-Bogut-Lee frontcourt. We won't know how it will go until the first halftime adjustment. Jackson may surprise us all with a schematic response akin to Greg Roman's read-option attack in the first round of the NFL playoffs.
Until that happens, I'll have to give Denver the edge in coaching.