SAN FRANCISCO – After the ball left his hands and dropped into the basket, the Golden State Warriors’ star could not help himself. He celebrated.
He wagged his tongue. He danced as he sauntered over to the sideline. And he showed the joy that defines the Warriors’ culture.
It would have been poetic if this play described one of Stephen Curry’s dramatic 3-pointers in his first game since nursing a left foot injury for the past month. Curry has produced those moments endlessly already during his storied 13-year career. Perhaps that moment will come another time.
Instead, this play captured one of Jordan Poole’s dramatic shots in his first career playoff game that fueled the Warriors’ 123-107 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Saturday at Chase Center. Poole emulated Curry with his production in points (30), field-goal shooting (9-for-13), 3-point shooting (5-for-7) and assists (three). Poole also mirrored Curry’s mannerisms with both his stylish play and his joyful celebrations.
“That’s his personality,” Curry said. “He doesn’t lack confidence in himself.”
It might be one thing for the 22-year-old Poole to exude confidence. Most young players operate that way. It becomes another thing when Poole has backed that up with his body of work.
Surely, the Warriors won’t conflate Poole’s play with Curry’s credentials as a three-time NBA champion, two-time regular season MVP and the NBA’s greatest shooter of all time. But the Warriors hardly seemed surprised with Poole becoming the 35th player in NBA history to score at least 30 points in his first career playoff game. With Poole tying Mitch Richmond for the second-most points for a Warriors player in their playoff debut behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 35, Poole offered the latest example of his ongoing development during his third NBA season.
“Jordan Poole, wow, what a playoff debut,” Thompson said. “All his hard work is paying off. If he doesn’t get ‘Most Improved [Player]’ this year, it doesn’t make any sense. Without him, we would not be where we are.”
The Warriors’ quest to return to win an NBA championship after toiling once in the NBA Draft lottery (2020) and once in the NBA’s play-in tournament (2021) presumably will hinge on the familiar characters with Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
No doubt, they all offered promising signs in the Warriors’ playoff debut. In his first playoff game since tearing the ACL in his left knee during Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors, Thompson offered his sharpshooting once again with 19 points while going 7-for-15 from the field and 5-for-10 from 3-point range. In his first playoff game since the same time, Green offered the same usual defensive intensity that made Nuggets center Nikola Jokic look miserable despite his 25-point performance on 12-for-15 shooting. Iguodala offered steady leadership in limited minutes (13 minutes).
It does not seem like a stretch to say that the Warriors would not have won Game 1 if not for Poole’s play. After Poole started in the 12 games Curry missed because of a bone bruise and torn ligament in his left foot, Warriors coach Steve Kerr kept Poole in the starting lineup. And why not? He has set career-highs in points per game (18.5), assists (4.0) as well as shooting from the field (44.8%), 3-point range (36.4%) and free-throw shooting (92.5%).
“He’s earned the respect and trust of his teammates,” Kerr said. “They believe in him and they see what he’s done all year. So, there’s no hesitation to put the ball in his hands.”
Here’s the kicker. Poole initially had the ball in his hands at Curry’s expense. The Warriors featured Curry off the bench on a minutes restriction (22) in hopes to ease his workload after not playing in an NBA game in about a month. That might be a tough ask for Curry to accept because of his credentials. But he admittedly felt willing and comfortable with the arrangement partly because of Poole’s presence.
“That’s a huge part of it, especially how he finished the season the last two months, basically,” Curry said. “But it’s also confidence in what we do as a team.”
Curry still finished with 16 points while shooting 5-for-13 from the field and 3-for-6 from deep, a performance that Curry described as “smooth, for the most part.” But he stayed patient with his return. After entering the game with 5:51 left, Curry did not take a shot until midway through the second quarter. During that stretch, Poole already had 11 points.
“I felt pretty prepared,” Poole said. “The coaching staff did a really good job of putting the game plan up, setting it up, and then we did a really good job as a team just going out there and executing.”
But Poole’s preparation goes beyond the Warriors’ coaching staff putting him in a position to succeed.
The preparation started when the Warriors selected Poole at No. 28 in the 2019 NBA Draft. By that point, Poole had developed as a dynamic shooter and playmaker through the AAU circuit, Milwaukee Rufus King High School and the University of Michigan. During those stops, Poole’s coaches raved about his confidence. But they marveled more at his coachability and quest for self-improvement.
The Warriors found Poole just as receptive to refining his shooting and improving his defense. They appreciated that Poole took criticism without taking it personally, while also showing enough confidence to challenge his coaches and teammates in hopes to improve. They also observed that Poole extended his workouts after practices and at night both after strong and poor performances.
“It’s just his hunger,” Thompson said. “He always had the talent. He had the handling skills. He had the shot. But his work ethic is what’s going to propel him.”
Therefore, Kerr became encouraged that Poole performed well in the Warriors’ two Play-In games last year against the Los Angeles Lakers (10 points on 4-for-9 shooting) and the Memphis Grizzlies (19 points on 6-for-11 shooting). Kerr likened those moments as “basically playoff games.” Hence, Kerr predicted that Poole “was not going to be shy” in his actual debut.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Poole said. “Obviously from the playoffs last year, the play-in game, people that I’ve asked said it was pretty close in terms of the atmosphere, physicality and the details. We are just trying to be as prepared as possible.”
Boy, did Poole look prepared. After all, he maintained he did not feel phased by the bright lights and the louder crowd. Poole reminded himself that “it’s just basketball.”
Initially, Poole stayed patient with his point of attack so he could observe the Nuggets’ defensive strategy. But it did not take long for Poole to play aggressively.
On one play, Poole threw a pocket pass to Warriors forward Kevon Looney in between a handful of Nuggets defenders for an open layup. On another play, Poole blew past Denver guard Austin Rivers for a reverse layup.
On another play, Poole dribbled to his right by Nuggets guard Will Barton before performing a Euro step and throwing a nearly backwards layup. After drawing a foul and making the layup, Poole roared and bobbed his head. That play prompted Curry to throw his hands up over his head. He then approached Poole with a high five.
“There’s no better feeling than having the guys behind you who have already been through the fight,” Poole said. “They have been through it at the highest level. You know, knowing that if you make any mistakes, you’ve got those guys that will pick you up.”
For example, Iguodala pulled Poole to the side to explain a defensive coverage to ensure Jokic could not find an open perimeter shooter. Otherwise, Poole’s teammates often encouraged him after a strong play.
Those moments happened the most when Poole became part of a closing lineup with Curry, Thompson, Green and Andrew Wiggins for the final 4:23 of the second quarter. During that stretch, the Warriors secured a 58-47 half-time lead by going on a 18-4 run. Then, Poole made a 28-foot 3 and a reverse layup, while also setting up Thompson for an open 27-footer.
“He’s like Steph with the ball in his hands as far as his ability to shoot off the pick-and-roll,” Thompson said. “We just have developed a great chemistry the last month or two of just playing ball.”
No wonder Kerr has a difficult decision to make fairly soon. No doubt, Curry will eventually reclaim his starting spot once the Warriors medical staff becomes encouraged with how Curry’s left foot has held up. Perhaps it happens as soon as Game 2. But will that come at Poole’s expense? Or can the Warriors still feature Curry, Thompson and Poole together in a three-guard lineup?
“Yeah,” Kerr said before letting silence fill the air for a few moments. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
To Poole’s credit, he has not questioned his evolving starting and reserve roles. He started for nearly half the season until Thompson’s return after nearly a 2 ½ year absence. Poole’s minutes fluctuated afterward based on Thompson’s availability on back-to-backs. Poole then experienced a promotion during Curry’s absence. Do not expect Poole to complain anytime soon.
“Just try to make the most of my opportunity when I’m out there. Just continue to be aggressive and play my game and all my coaches and teammates tell me just to be me,” Poole said. “Adjustments change. You’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to be prepared.”
Because of that preparation, Poole mirrored his best imitation of Curry in Game 1 both with his play and mannerisms. After seeing Poole’s boisterous celebration following his deep 3-pointer, Curry smiled and laughed.
“That play embodied it,” Curry said. “Because you just have the creativity, confidence in yourself to make a play. You don’t second guess yourself. You kind of live with the results and we’ve all done it for years and he’s stepping into that now. It’s fun to see.”
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