clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NBA Playoffs Preview Guide Warriors vs Nuggets: A deep dive on a tantalizing first-round matchup

How will the Warriors defend Nikola Jokić? How will they attack him?

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s the Golden State Warriors vs. the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The headline practically writes itself: two-time MVP Stephen Curry vs. reigning MVP (and prohibitive MVP favorite) Nikola Jokić.

While those two superstars — two of the greatest offensive players in NBA history — drive plenty of their respective team’s success, it also comes down to who can take advantage of their offensive fulcrum’s pull.

Curry practically invented the term “gravity” in a basketball context. His on-ball adventures almost always draw every type of aggressive ball-screen coverage: traps, blitzes, hedges, screen-level step-ups. His perpetual off-ball movement sows discord within opposing defenses, and opens up looks for his teammates.

Jokić generates gravity himself. Not a lot of players on this planet can match up to him in single coverage, especially in the low post (1.17 points per possession in the post, 91st percentile). He has an arsenal of post moves buoyed by effortless footwork, while possessing arguably the best touch of any post player in modern times.

It’s not just in the post either. Jokić is a three-level scorer whose high release point makes it near impossible to affect his jumper. He shoots 59% from the mid-range (96th percentile). His 33.7% from three on around 4 attempts per game is technically below league average, but leave him open on pop outs and flares and he will drill those shots from beyond the arc.

Sending a double against him isn’t that much better. He has a preternatural knack for finding open teammates on the perimeter (sometimes, before said teammates don’t even know they’re open), or accurately placing a pass to cutters. He can do it from anywhere on the floor — whether it be on “Delay” sets up top, at the elbows/high post, or in the low post.

The simple question that will define this matchup is this: which team is more willing to gamble by letting the non-Curry/non-Jokić contingent take the shots?

As you may have already guessed, the Warriors have a couple of factors going their way in that aspect.

Projected starting lineups

Warriors Nuggets
Warriors Nuggets
Stephen Curry Monte Morris
Klay Thompson Will Barton
Andrew Wiggins Aaron Gordon
Draymond Green Jeff Green
Kevon Looney Nikola Jokić

Relevant regular season team stats

Stat Warriors Grizzlies
Stat Warriors Grizzlies
Offensive Rating 112.1 (16th) 114.3 (4th)
Half-Court Offensive Rating 97.3 (12th) 93.4 (22nd)
Defensive Rating 106.6 (2nd) 108.9 (6th)
Half-Court Defensive Rating 91.2 (3rd) 93.3 (9th)
Effective Field-Goal Percentage 55.2% (3rd) 52.2% (23rd)
Pace 98.74 (15th) 100.52 (4th)
Assist Percentage 66.9% (1st) 59.7% (19th)
Turnover Percentage 15.0% (29th) 13.0% (8th)
Free-Throw Attempts Per 100 Possessions 20.6 (25th) 23.0 (7th)
Free-Throw Percentage 76.9% (17th) 73.4% (28th)
Three-Point-Attempt Rate 45.6% (2nd) 34.6% (28th)
Three-Point Percentage 36.4% (8th) 35.3% (17th)
Offensive Rebound Percentage 26.9% (16th) 33.8% (1st)

Defending Jokić

The Warriors did not have Draymond Green’s services in every one of their 4 matchups against the Nuggets in the regular season, where Jokić averaged 28-16-9 on 52/17/68 shooting splits and 57.6% True Shooting. That wasn’t his typical scoring efficiency; he put up a 66.1% True Shooting mark during the regular season.

But such numbers were good enough to put pressure on a Warriors defense that had limited options in single coverage. Kevon Looney had bouts of success — but he can’t do everything by himself, especially in terms of surviving solo against an offensive force.

Ultimately, the only point of reference left are games from last season, where plenty of data can be obtained from Green guarding Jokić.

According to NBA.com matchup data, in 3 regular season games during the 2020-21 season, Jokić shot a combined 14-of-23 (60.9%) when guarded by Green.

Matchup data is an imperfect science. There were possessions where Green was merely in the vicinity of a Jokić shot attempt, but was still credited with guarding him. In any case, the numbers would have you believe that Green had a more difficult time against Jokić than initially perceived.

Here are a couple of clips of Green guarding Jokić last season:

You can pretty much conclude three things from the clips above:

  1. Jokić will find ways to score, no matter what
  2. Your best bet at limiting Jokić is to push him off his spots
  3. Even if you push him off his spots, see point #1

It’s undeniable that Jokić will get his, regardless of what kind of coverage you throw at him and who you throw at him — including Green. But the good news is that Looney won’t be alone in terms of being the only capable single-coverage defender on Jokić.

Green and Looney can take turns. Nemanja Bjelica may sound like a controversial choice, but he’s a substantially better standstill defender (i.e., in the low post) than he is a mobile one (i.e., pick-and-rolls and perimeter switches); don’t be surprised if Bjelica is part of the rotation for this series to eat up some of the Jokić reps.

One thing the Warriors need to avoid as much as possible is to give up an easy switch onto Jokić and let him feast on a potential mismatch. Having the likes of Klay Thompson or Andrew Wiggins switched onto Jokić isn’t ideal, but they can survive long enough for help to arrive.

Having the likes of Curry or Jordan Poole switch onto Jokić , on the other hand, is an absolute no-no. The Nuggets have previously tried to pick on those matchups and force a comical mismatch. To be fair to the Warriors, they’ve done a good job of “scram” switching — switching off the ball to eliminate a mismatch — to avoid disaster.

The Warriors may be fine with Jokić averaging something along the lines of 30-12-5. If they manage to cut down those averages marginally, all the better. But the real battle may be decided on how often Jokić finds his teammates on cuts and open perimeter looks, and whether said teammates can consistently finish possessions.

The Nuggets are 4th in the league (9 cuts per game) when it comes to the frequency of cuts they make, and 6th in terms of efficiency (1.346 PPP). Similar to how the Warriors (11.5 cuts per game, most in the league) like to send their players on cuts/slips off of split action initiated from the low post, the Nuggets are also fond of post entries to Jokić and treating him as a fulcrum around which the others can move off of.

It’s imperative that the Warriors stay attached to their assignments as much as possible, and to keep their hands up at all times and active in passing lanes. Otherwise, these kinds of cuts will continue to burn them, as it did throughout this season against the Nuggets:

The difference between the Warriors’ low-post split action and Jokić in the low post is that Jokić can take it upon himself to score in post isolations if no one around him is open, which makes it tough for anyone on the weak side/perimeter to completely keep track of their man, with the temptation to help on Jokić difficult to resist.

Sending help/doubles from Jokić’s blind side is the more preferable option, even if he’s more than capable of finding his teammates left open as a result (as seen from some of the clips above). It’s certainly better than helping off the strong-side corner/wing/slot, where the Nuggets like to park a shooter — Bryn Forbes (41.4% on 4.1 attempts), Davon Reed (43.0% on 1.8 attempts) or Monte Morris (39.5% on 4.2 attempts), for example — to punish any ill-advised attempt to help from the strong side.

On occasion, the threat of a cut is enough to suck in help from the corners. Jokić is capable of seeing one pass ahead, looking off cutters and lasering precision bullets toward the corner.

It just so happens that the Warriors are among the bottom corner-three defenses in the league. They allow the 9th most corner threes in the league, and opponents shoot 39.7% on them — 8th worst.

A simple screen and dive from Jeff Green in the possession above draws Curry — the low man — away from the weak-side corner. As always, Jokić is one step ahead; he whips the skip pass to Austin Rivers, who drills the three over a desperate close-out by Curry.

There’s no surefire way to completely stop Jokić; he’s that good. But there are instances where you can bump him off his spot, put pressure against his lower base, and make him a tad uncomfortable.

As aforementioned, cutting him off from the rest of his teammates is also paramount. Clogging passing lanes and staying attached and aware off the ball will be crucial.

The Nuggets have a single elite scoring talent who can lord over any kind of matchup. But beyond Jokić, the Nuggets don’t have enough shot creation to pick apart matchups and serve as reliable burden relievers. This is where they will sorely miss having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. around.

The Warriors succeeding in taking away the non-Jokić contingent and making them non-factors raises the possibility that this could be a short series.

Attacking Jokić

There’s no doubt that the Nuggets will need Jokić to play as much as possible. With him on the floor, they outscore opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions; without him, opponents outscore the Nuggets by 7.9 points per 100 possessions — a gargantuan difference of 16.3 points per 100 possessions.

The difference is bigger on offense — they go from the equivalent of the best offense in the league with him on the floor (117.3 ORTG) to 3rd worst without him (105.0 ORTG). Their defense suffers a similar decline — from the equivalent of the 5th best defense (108.9 DRTG) to the 22nd ranked defense (113.0 DRTG).

The defensive side of things is interesting. Despite the general consensus about Jokić’s defense, all-in-one metrics paint him as a relatively significant plus-defender.

He’s not a terrible defender by any means. Deceptively fast hands garner him plenty of deflections and steals. While mostly a ground-bound big, he can occasionally send away shots at the rim if scorers attack him head on.

But he’s far from being a bona-fide rim protector. Opponents shoot 64.7% at the rim against Jokić — 39th among 46 players who defend at least 4 shots at the rim per game.

The Nuggets have employed plenty of screen-level coverages — a variation of drop that isn’t as deep as traditional drop, but more conservative than a hedge — when Jokić is involved in the pick-and-roll. Theoretically, this takes away a shooter’s space to pull up and allows the on-ball defender to recover and/or trail, while Jokić contains and eventually recovers to his original assignment.

But force him to defend in space against someone with enough juice to turn the corner, get downhill, and finish (with the added assistance of some early-offense drag screens) and Jokić will have trouble stopping them if he can’t get a quick swipe in:

Because of Jokić’s propensity for meeting ball-handlers at the level of the screen, he’s also occasionally forced to permanently defend them on switches. These late switches are born out of ball handlers engaging Jokić around the screen and rapidly drawing him out toward the perimeter, leaving him with no choice but to pick them up.

It’s a between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place kind of situation for Jokić. Play someone too close, and they blow by; play them too loose, and they’ll pull up for a jumper.

Engaging Jokić and forcing him to defend at the level/springing a soft double also places the Nuggets into a bit of a bind. Their backline defense has holes that are exploitable; forcing them to have to make a choice between helping on the ball or accounting for whoever’s open on the roll or on the weak-side perimeter can yield maximum scoring results.

Add to that the fact the Nuggets don’t really have a premier point-of-attack stopper/screen navigator, which compounds the pressure and load that Jokić has to carry when defending screen-and-rolls.

Curry draws plenty of attention himself. Place him in screen-and-roll situations involving Jokić, and he’ll find the open man:

Because Jokić isn’t an all-world defender — good, but not great — the backline defense has to pick up some of the slack, and that’s where some of the cracks start to emerge. Having the luxury of spacers — e.g., Thompson, Wiggins, and Otto Porter Jr. — who can spot up serves as a deep pool of shooting talent who can punish a Nuggets defense in rotation.

A double drag screen for Poole shifts the Nuggets defense to the right in the possession above. Poole then whips a skip pass to Thompson on the weak-side wing, who subsequently attacks the hard close-out by Morris, allowing him to go all the way to the rim for the layup.

The Warriors have enough talent and depth on offense to constantly pressure a Nuggets defense that doesn’t have the talent to match. Putting Jokić in all sorts of action and forcing him to defend in space over and over again can serve a double purpose: finding pockets of scoring against someone who has trouble in those situations, and also potentially tiring him out over the course of the series and affecting his output on the offensive end.

Who will round out the rotation?

Let’s mention the “givens.” Andre Iguodala is a definite shoo-in — his wing defense and switchability have always been key, and will continue to be no matter the matchup, as will his passing and overall playmaking on offense. Let’s also not forget him being a veteran presence with loads of playoff experience who can provide plenty of stability.

Gary Payton II has been a revelation this season on the defensive end. His peskiness on the ball, coupled with his nature as a passing lane menace, are just hard to pass up on. And as some of the clips above have shown, he can match up against Jokić on offense, set screens for Curry on empty side pick-and-rolls, and park himself at the dunker spot for easy points.

Otto Porter Jr.’s combination of size and shooting is a must. His effort on the boards will also be important — especially against the possibility of Jokić gobbling up multiple offensive boards.

And no, I am not forgetting Jordan Poole — more on him in the next section.

The conditional rotation pieces for this series — those who may see (emphasis on “may,” especially when it comes to rookies) limited spot minutes on the floor but will be victims of a late-game rotation crunch — include Nemanja Bjelica and Jonathan Kuminga.

All things considered, Bjelica did decently against Jokić in the low post this season, but don’t fret if Jokić scores over him — he scores over pretty much anyone. Bjelica is another body to throw at Jokić to eat up reps and fouls. His passing, playmaking, and spacing on offense are bonuses.

Kuminga has trouble matching up against Jokić defensively by virtue of being 1) a rookie; and 2) too small. But he’s another body you can throw at him should the Warriors need more, and he matches up perfectly with Jokić on offense by drawing him out toward the perimeter and taking him off the dribble, blazing past him on cuts, or being faster in transition, especially when setting drag screens.

So my prediction of who will round out the rotation is as follows.

Shoo-ins:

  • Jordan Poole
  • Andre Iguodala
  • Gary Payton II
  • Otto Porter Jr.

Conditional/situational:

  • Nemanja Bjelica
  • Jonathan Kuminga

That amounts to a 9-10 man rotation — possibly cut down to 8 during late-game — which should be the sweet spot for Steve Kerr during this first-round matchup.

X-factor: Jordan Poole

As you may have noticed, the projected starting lineup above doesn’t include Poole in it. There’s no doubt that he’s a deserving starter — and in any other matchup, he has a great case for supplanting either Andrew Wiggins or Kevon Looney.

But the idea of eliminating an extra body to account for Jokić sounds like a bad one. Looney will be needed to share a significant load of the defensive reps; going to a small-ball lineup with Green at the 5 right away may be too much, too soon — and you wouldn’t want your best defender to get tired and break down during the first round.

As such, how Poole handles a potential return to a 6th-man role could be key. Considering the possibility that Curry — should he return in time for Game 1 — may be under a minutes restriction, Poole may be heavily relied on to carry a significant amount of the on-ball shot creation and playmaking off the bench.

Also, let’s not eliminate the possibility that Poole — while he may not be part of the starting lineup — can certainly be part of a closing lineup that has Green at the 5, signaling an intent for maximum pace-and-space. There is precedence for success when the Warriors go small and run the Nuggets into oblivion, as can be seen from some of the clips above, especially during early-offense drag screens.

Poole will be a huge part of that pace-and-space/run-and-gun mantra — and if he can bear playing Curry’s backup for a little while longer, he’ll be rewarded with an opportunity to be a closer during the game’s crucial moments.

Prediction

This matchup on paper may be marquee — a two-time MVP vs. a soon-to-be two-time MVP, and two of the greatest offensive talents the game of basketball has seen. But the personnel beyond Curry and Jokić is where the difference lies.

The talent and depth of the Warriors trumps that of the Nuggets. Make no mistake — Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, and Monte Morris aren’t slouches. Forget about them for too long, and they can punish you in all sorts of ways.

But they’re not Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Jokić will get his numbers, but he could sure use secondary shot creators who can relieve some of the pressure off of him in terms of offensive output. He doesn’t have that right now.

How long this series will last depends on when Curry will return, and how he will look when he returns. If he returns in Game 1 and shows little signs of rust, the series may not last beyond 5 games. On the other hand, if he doesn’t return in Game 1 or shows visible signs of rust, a 6-game series is entirely plausible.

I’m inclined to lean toward the former. Having Curry on the floor will go a long way toward opening up shots for the likes of Thompson, Wiggins, and Poole. Green has shown enough in the closing stretches of the regular season to make me believe he’ll make a huge impact on both ends of the floor.

Jokić is a transcendent offensive talent, and him playing gives the Nuggets one heck of a puncher’s chance. But he can’t do everything by himself.

Warriors in 5

This sponsored post was published according to our guiding principles.