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Ladies and gentlemen….let the real games begin.

Fresh off the conclusion of arguably their most impressive regular season in nearly two decades, Golden State is headed to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, and only the second time in 19 years. And while the Warriors and their fans have every right to celebrate a well-deserved sixth seed in the Western Conference, they better not take very long to do it. Because a certain conference foe from the Rockies awaits them in Denver, and the climb will only get tougher from here on out.

The Denver Nuggets had quite an impressive season in their own right, and they might just be playing their best ball of the season right now. That’s exactly how every team wants to enter the playoffs, and that’s exactly what George Karl has managed to get out of a squad that truly fits the definition of “team”. Lacking any single true superstar (looks like things have worked out for Carmelo in NYC), the Nuggets might more accurately personify the “greater than the sum of its parts” metaphor than any contending team in recent memory. From the starting five to the end of the bench, Denver is a tough, talented opponent that has the ability to run you right out of the building. At 38-3, the Nuggets have the best home record in the entire league, which really, comes as no surprise. The high altitude of their home city has created a significant advantage for the Nuggets over the years, one they capitalize on night-in and night-out as their unaccustomed opponent frequently tires quicker in the thinner air. Knowing this, they employ an ultra-aggressive strategy, particularly on the defensive end, where their blitzing of ball handlers and collection of rim protectors leads to frequent turnovers and numerous fast breaks, two hallmarks of this year’s team’s success.

With one of the deepest rosters in the league, Denver poses significant matchup problems, regardless of who their opponent is. (photo: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty)

But that’s not all. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this Nuggets team is their resiliency in the face of doubt. How easy it was to jump off the Denver bandwagon after their starting forward and most skilled offensive player went down when Danilo Gallinari was lost for the season to a torn ACL a mere two weeks ago. Yet the Nuggets just kept on truckin’, compiling a 5-1 record to close the season following his departure from the lineup. It wasn’t just Gallinari though. Super-agile point guard Ty Lawson suffered a torn plantar fascia in his right heel in March, and the giant ball of energy that is sophomore forward Kenneth Faried recently suffered what appeared to be a pretty significant ankle injury. Both of those key cogs missed several games down the stretch, and yet Denver still managed to post a ridiculous 23-3 record to close out the regular season. That, my friends, tells you two things you probably already know:

1. You can never have enough depth, and
2. George Karl is one hell of a coach.

So, yes, to underestimate the Nuggets despite their recent encounters with the injury bug would be a catastrophic mistake. Yet that’s not something Warriors fans need to worry about. After taking three of the four matchups against the Warriors in the regular season, Golden State is perfectly familiar with what makes the Denver train go, and they’re well aware of just how potent the Nuggets can be when firing on all cylinders. Furthermore, it’s not as if the Warriors ended up as the sixth seed by pure luck. They earned it with each and every one of the 47 wins it took to get to that spot, and accompanying each of those wins was a confidence and understanding that they have the ability to compete with any team that steps out on that floor. Yes, there have been some rough spots along the way, but as a whole, the Warriors can look back on this regular season knowing they took a big step in their development as a team and franchise. But as stated earlier, the real games are just starting, and there are still several more steps to take before this full season can be considered an undeniable success. And if the Warriors are wondering how those steps might be taken, well, they might want to refer to their silky-smooth point guard, who knows a little something about reaching new heights.

Finally healthy enough to play a whole season, Stephen Curry raised his game to a new level, particularly down the stretch. (photo: Christian Petersen/NBAE/Getty)

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a player who’s made a bigger leap this season than Stephen Curry. Sure, he won’t be considered for any most improved player awards, but that’s more due to the nature of the award than any fault of his own. Coming into the season, he was the talented centerpiece. But now, he’s much more than that. He’s the focus. He’s the leader. He is now a bonafide star.

And really, the progression is undeniable. He’s always been a great offensive player, but never before have we seen so many of the dazzling dribbling displays that have sent “OOOOOOHH!”’s throughout the crowd…and opposing defenders stumbling to the ground. On the defensive side, he’s made significant progress in terms of limiting penetration from the opposition, as well as staying out of foul trouble. One could argue that might have been the biggest key to the Warriors season, as a finally healthy Curry was able to play 78 games at a whopping 38.2 minutes per contest, good for seventh most in the league. And when Curry’s on the court, that’s typically a bad thing for the opposition. We’ve covered it before, but on his way to setting a new NBA record with 272 three-pointers, Curry may have just put together the greatest shooting season the league has ever witnessed. Not bad for a 25-year old, eh?

But this is not the regular season. Those 272 treys will remain in the annals of NBA history, but they mean next to nothing now. It’s time to reset, time to fire the engines back up. Because if the Warriors stand any chance at taking down the favored Nuggets, it will have to come from a huge collective team effort and understanding that everything they’ve worked for has been in preparation for this moment. The regular season was the starter. Now it’s time for the main course.

With that in mind, here are the three biggest keys to the series, which will go a long way in determining which team advances, and which team is sent home packing, pondering what could have been:

1. Free Throws

It’s well known that although Golden State has taken many steps in the right direction on the defensive side of the ball this season, they still have plenty of room to grow, particularly in limiting the quantity of fouls they dole out. The Warriors committed 1,753 personal fouls on the season, good for second-most in the league. On the other side of the coin, Denver drew 1,775 personal fouls (fourth-most in the league), and attempted 2,148 free throws, the third-most of all teams in the Association. Despite the fact that the Nuggets are the third-worst free throw shooting team at 70.1 percent, this would appear to be a bad recipe for Golden State. And indeed, when you look at each of the four meetings between the two teams this year, you’ll notice that Denver had a distinct advantage in the free throw department in each of their three victories, out-attempting the Warriors 84-49. Expecting the Warriors to break even at the free throw line (at least in terms of the number of attempts) is just setting yourself up for disappointment. It’s not going to happen. But that’s not essential for the Warriors to compete. Rather, if they can just keep the number of attempts reasonably close and avoid any huge disparities, the percentages should even out. They don’t have to beat the Nuggets at their own game. They just need to limit the amount of free points Denver earns from the charity stripe. However, if things go in the opposite direction, that’s an obstacle that the Warriors will find very difficult to overcome. The Nuggets are already an impressive team without any help from the opposition. Giving them an added boost could prove insurmountable.

2. Limiting Momentum

This series figures to be be the most entertaining of all the first round matchups, and that is due in large part to the way each of these teams has the ability to turn absolutely incendiary at times. This is not going to be your typical slow-it-down, run the half-court set and draw the game out playoff series. Quite the opposite actually. Both these squads are going to be flying up and down the court, taking the first available quality shot, while looking to get out on the fast break at each and every opportunity. That’s the type of way these teams have played all season long, and to alter that strategy at this point would prove downright dumb. It will be interesting, however, how each team attempts to curtail the strengths of the other, particularly in limiting momentum. Both teams thrive in a fast-paced environment, and both have shown the ability to turn a game from a close battle into an absolute blowout in the blink of an eye. Their proficiency at going on extended scoring runs to create separation has been a key to each team’s success, and will surely play a role in what should be an electric series. For instance, in each of the Nuggets three victories over the Dubs, they broke the game open with deciding scoring runs of 11-0, 15-0 and 21-2, respectively. Those runs are not only the difference between winning and losing those games, but ultimately the very reason why these two teams are matched up now. As close as the Western Conference playoff race was, a couple more or less victories here or there and the playoff picture could look entirely different. Those extended scoring runs are absolute back-breakers, and whichever team finds themselves on the wrong end of one could very well be on their way out of the postseason. Clamping down on the opposition, limiting easy buckets (including free throws), and understanding the situation of the game are all methods to mitigate that possibility. Whichever team employs them most effectively is likely to win the close games which, one way or another, is how this series will be won. Failure to do so, and you might as well start packing your bags. Which brings me to my next key to the series…

3. The Experience Factor

On second thought, maybe I should call it the lack-of-experience factor. When you look at the Warriors roster, it makes you wonder how many airline miles they’ve accumulated on May vacations throughout their careers. Andrew Bogut is the only Golden State Warriors starter who has ever been to the playoffs, and only five players on the team have ever been to the postseason. Speaking to the Warriors’ relative youth, those same five players are the only members of the current roster that were even in the NBA the last time the Dubs made the playoffs back in 2007. So those airline mile totals are probably significantly lower than originally expected. Conversely, the Nuggets, who will be playing in their 10th consecutive postseason, have a roster filled with a bevy of players with their fair share of playoff experience. The lack of experience in and of itself won’t prevent the Warriors from winning this series, but at the same time it certainly couldn’t hurt to have that experience advantage on your side. Having been in that type of crazed playoff environment before, veterans of the postseason are more likely to approach the game understanding it’s relative importance in the larger scale of things, and less likely to crumble beneath the pressures of 20,000 fans going nuts, doing anything possible to get inside their head. On the other hand, every season is a new book, and past experiences don’t necessarily have any effect on future outcomes. But some would argue that coaching playoff experience, rather than player familiarity, is a much greater advantage in terms of providing your team a distinct leg-up on the competition, and Denver Head Coach George Karl clearly has the edge on Mark Jackson in that respect. Karl, as if he didn’t have a Hall-of-Fame resume already, is taking his team to the playoffs for the 22nd time in his career (more than any other coach in NBA history), having amassed 78 playoff victories up to this point. There’s no denying he’s a tremendous coach, and with so much playoff experience to his name, you have to wonder if there’s a mismatch here that Denver can exploit.

Mark Jackson has shown he has a promising future as an NBA coach, but is he ready to take the next step? (photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty)

Will Mark Jackson, who has never coached a single playoff game in his limited coaching career, be able to match Karl move-for-move in what has the potential to be a seven-game battle? That remains to be seen, but you can expect Jackson to handle the situation better than your average first-time coach. After all, it’s not as if the playoffs are a foreign environment to a man who ranks third all-time in the NBA with 10,334 assists, and played in 131 games in 14 trips to the playoffs in his illustrious 17-year professional career. He’s been there before. He understands the situation. Most of all, he’s proven that he can lead his team to heights not previously attained. If Jackson ever turns out to be as good and successful of a coach as he was a point guard, then the Warriors’ relative lack of playoff experience will be a thing of the past before long. He can take a big step in that direction in this, his first taste of the second season as a coach, but he’s certainly got his work cut out for him matching up against one of the most successful coaches of the modern era.

Of course, I guess it’s always possible that all of the above could be completely wrong. The two teams could combine for some of the most boring basketball the playoffs have ever seen, scoring totals could land in the mid-70’s in a battle of hack-a-JaVale, youngsters like Harrison Barnes and Evan Fournier could shove the experience factor where the sun don’t shine, and Mark Jackson could say screw it, give me the damn ball, and shimmy-shake the Warriors into the second round.

It’s possible, but don't count on it. No way, no how.

Nope, this series is going to be exactly what we all expect it to be: a high-energy, back-and-forth insane battle that has a chance at producing point totals not seen since the days of the ABA. With the rosters that comprise these teams and the coaches that direct them, this matchup has all the makings of a seven-game slug-out that could come down to the last seconds of the final quarter.

Strap yourselves in people. It’s going to be a wild ride.

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