It took them an entire season to get everyone back together, but the Golden State Warriors finally have their Number back in place, and it was a huge Strength in the opening game of their series with the Denver Nuggets. Steph Curry came off the bench in his first game in a month to score 16 points, but it was Draymond Green’s defense and Jordan Poole’s red-hot playoff debut - he had 30 points on just 13 field goal attempts - that led the way in a comfortable 123-107 win. Presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic had 25, but some tough and timely Warriors’ defense forced him to take 25 shots to get there, along with his ten rebounds and six assists.
Poole was a revelation, tying Mitch Richmond for the second-most points in a playoff debut for the franchise. (It’s not a surprise that Wilt Chamberlain is first with 35 points, although he needed 23 more shots than Poole to get there.) He took (and made) just one shot in an abbreviated run in the first quarter, as Steve Kerr initially staggered the minutes for Poole and Curry. Curry again came in halfway through the second for Poole, after Poole already scored eight points on 3-3 shooting and drawn two fouls. This time, Poole returned to pair with Curry in a scorching lineup, and finished the second quarter with 14 points and an assist on 5-5 shooting. Jordan didn’t miss a shot until the second half. The key sequence after five straight Warriors misses when Poole tied the game with a three, then finished an acrobatic layup through contact for an and-one that gave the Warriors a lead they’d never relinquish.
The closest Denver got after halftime was eight points, at 66-58. Klay hit a jumper and then Poole broke Denver’s spirit with back-to-back threes. I’m not sure you can have a dagger halfway through the third quarter, but Poole’s second, deep three certainly felt like one.
Poole took an important step and made a good impression on his friend’s dad. That’s right, he powwowed with Gary Payton I after the game, who was congratulatory toward GP2’s buddy’s efforts, though he though his trash talk could have used more profanity.
Draymond Green was the leader of a fantastic defense that played Jokic mostly straight up, coming to double only rarely and at unpredictable moments. Joker still got points, but the series of defenders run at him - Green, Kevon Looney, Nemanja Bjelica, even Otto Porter, wore him out, as did the pressure and ball movement of the Warriors on defense. As for Draymond, he had three blocks, six rebounds, and committed only two fouls.
Two figures returned from a long absence and tried to assert themselves on the playoff stage. One of them was Stephen Curry, who had a typical Steph Curry game returning from injury in the playoffs. His shot wasn’t falling early, but he still drew a ton of attention the whole time, and eventually started draining threes. Interestingly, Curry didn’t shoot at all in his first stint in the game. He had three assists in the first quarter, and zero field goal attempts. He didn’t look the same, moving a little awkwardly, and his play making and facilitating seemed less a strategy and more a response to his inability to get open. The Chef started shooting in the second, but missed his first five shots, leaving most of his attempts on the front rim. Steph‘s first “make“ was on a goaltended layup with 1:14 to go in the second, and then he hit a three-pointer with four seconds left, and the Warriors finished the half up 11 points.
Steph’s growing ability to find the bucket coincided with the Warriors debuting their new “Death Lineup,” an unstoppable five-man assortment featuring three guards with nuclear scoring potential, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins. Poole called it “the lethal backcourt” in his postgame interview. Maybe with Canada’s all-time leading scorer involved, this becomes a “You’re Dead, Sorry!” Lineup. Maybe the “Splash Poole” lineup? They’re all pretty adorable and they’re carrying the team - the “Death Cab For Cutie” lineup? Whatever you call them, they closed the half on an 18-4 run, shooting 6-10 and 3-4 from three-point range, and 3-3 from the free throw line.
The second figure reasserting himself in the playoff stage was referee Scott Foster. Foster’s a legend in the referee community whose calls are so wild that all 30 teams in the NBA fervently believe Foster is biased against them. He was also the best friend and regular confidant of disgraced gambling referee Tim Donaghy. But people who think Foster has it out for their team are wrong, and yes I’m talking to you, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets. Because Scott Foster’s loyalty is to one person: Scott Foster. He doesn’t care about your team! He just wants Scott Foster to shine on the biggest stage.
After a relatively quiet first half, Foster stepped up and made his presence known in the fourth quarter. On a completely innocuous defensive possession, Demarcus “Boogie’’ Cousins was called for a technical. I have reviewed the footage, Mike Malone has weighed in, and I have no idea what warranted a technical. Then, Boogie apparently gave Foster some choice words, maybe because he just got a technical foul for no goddamn reason, and he picked up an immediate second T and got ejected.
The game was most likely over at that point. The Nuggets had cut the lead from 20 to 16, but they were still reeling. That being said, it was ridiculous that Nicole Jokic had to go back in the game two or three minutes early because Boogie looked at Foster the wrong way. Yes, this benefited the Warriors, but Boogie Cousins basically got ejected because he wasn’t nice enough to a dirty cop.
You can count me among the people who were distressed by the Warriors at the end of the regular season. They couldn’t win a close game, the offense was rough beyond Jordan Poole, and we didn’t know when Steph Curry would begin ramping up for rehab. But we also forgot what it was like to see Curry, Thompson, and Green together on the court. And we had never seen what it looked like when you took that trio and added an And1 Tour-caliber dribbler and deadeye shooter named Jordan Poole. It barely matters who the fifth guy is, but when one of those guys is Kevon Looney, playing solid defense all game on the presumptive MVP, and the other one is an All-Star starter (thank you, K-Pop!) and one of the fastest 6’8” player in the NBA, you’re in good shape. Oh, the other options are a former Finals MVP and a 28-year-old former max player who shoots 40% from three-point range.
Andrew Wiggins might be a disappointment as an All-Star starter, or even as the number one pick in the NBA draft. But when Andrew Wiggins only has to be a role player, he is about as good a role player as exists in the NBA. Wiggins had 16 points on 11 shots. Somehow he also pulled down nine rebounds. He had two assists, one steal, turned the ball over only once and committed only two fouls in 29 minutes. And it could have been more. Almost every shot Wiggins put up was an open three, a layup, or a point blank shot from within ten feet. If Wiggins feels more comfortable as a third option in Golden State, think how happy he’ll be as a 4th or 5th option.
We say 5th option because Draymond Green had an incredible offensive night, and showed as much aggressiveness with the ball as we’d seen all season. He had 12 points in just 7 shots, going 5-7, hitting a three, getting a three-point play, and periodically exploiting giant pockets of space created by Poole, Thompson, and Curry. His nine assists don’t tell the whole story, as Green had plenty of hockey assists, where he threw the pass that led to the assist, or even two passes ahead at moments. And he didn’t turn the ball over a single time! Plus, he showed he could also launch threes over Jokic.
The other two playmakers for the Warriors were two bench veterans. Andre Iguodala didn’t score once in his 13 minutes, and only took one shot. But he had four assists, two rebounds, and a block, and the best passes of the game - a game that included Nikola Jokic and Steph Curry.
Andre’s best pass didn’t even go down as an assist, a no-look behind-the-back pass to Otto Porter Junior in the corner, where he missed a three, probably because he was so wide-open that the loneliness affected his jumper. Porter scored only four points, but he played really well, tying for a game-high with his +21 in 25 minutes. Suddenly this bench looks incredible, and that’s with rookie phenom Jonathan Kuminga relegated to the bench for now, an incredibly potent emergency reserve - break glass in case of mismatch.
At times, the Warriors appeared to be running the Point Bjelica offense. Nemanja Bjelica was taking the ball to the hole time and time again with the starters resting. Which isn’t an ideal offense, but the We Bjelieve attack helped the Warriors hold serve with a defense-heavy lineup to start the second quarter. Belli finished with eight points, with an assist, a steal, a block, and a bunch of drives that looked like an agile polar bear was running a fast break.
And of course, there was Klay Thompson, who came out hot, hitting three of his five triples in the first quarter and scoring 9 points. He finished with 19 points, 14 before halftime, and after some very early hiccups where he missed badly and turned the ball over, it was the same Playoff Klay Warriors fans have come to expect, including a very feisty tete-a-tete with Aaron Gordon that drew a double technical.
Jokic didn’t have a great game, but he really didn’t get any help, aside from Warriors killer Will Barton. If you only watched games Barten played against the Warriors, you’d think “The People’s Champ” was an All-Star. Barton had 24, but 14 of those came with the game well out of hand in the 4th quarter. Gordon really contributed little, scoring only eight points and missing all his threes. To be honest, he looked ready to go on vacation after the series, because his braids looked a hairstyle something a sorority girl would get on a trip to Cancun.
Poor Austin Rivers was held to five points in 26 minutes and will clearly be hearing about this game from Curryand Damion Lee at the next family gathering. Monte Morris had ten points and six assists, but only made one of his threes. Overall, the Warriors hit 16 three-pointers to Denver’s 11, both in 35 attempts, which represents almost exactly the margin of victory.
Next game is Monday night, and it’s not clear yet who will be in the starting lineup. Curry is almost certainly still on a minutes restriction, and it seems very difficult to take Poole out after the game he has. All we do know is that we’re going to see Curry-Poole-Klay together until Denver proves they can stop it.