2022 Playoffs: West First Round | Warriors (3) vs. Nuggets (6)

Series preview: Warriors' hopes of advancing rest on slowing Nikola Jokic

Denver's star center, Nikola Jokic, has a heavy burden to bear against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the deep Warriors.

The Warriors must find a way to contain reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic in their first-round series.

Warriors-Nuggets series coverage
2022 NBA playoffs schedule

The Golden State Warriors (53-29) and Denver Nuggets (48-34) enter their first-round matchup inheriting different circumstances.

Though Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have only played a combined 11 minutes together because of overlapping injuries, the Warriors have experienced mixed success with relying on their two stars and a handful of young and veteran young players. Though Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has emerged as a strong contender to defend his Kia MVP trophy, the Nuggets have experienced mixed success with their supporting cast mitigating the long-term absences of Jamal Murray (left knee) and Michael Porter Jr. (spine surgery).

Role players and other stars will shape the Warriors-Nuggets series as much as Nikola Jokic and Stephen Curry will.

All of which sets up an interesting first-round matchup. The Warriors return to the playoffs for the first time in three years with four players stars that fueled their dynasty run (include Andre Iguodala). But the Warriors have hardly become as dominant as they were during their dynasty years. The Nuggets do not appear as dangerous as when they advanced to the 2020 Western Conference finals after overcoming 3-1 playoff series deficits both to the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers. Yet, the Nuggets have proven that it remains unwise to underestimate them.

Three things to watch

When will Curry return? The Warriors plan to evaluate Curry sometime on Monday after missing the past 11 games because of a sprained ligament in his left foot. Coach Steve Kerr recently said “there’s a chance” Curry will play in Game 1 “there’s a chance he might not.” The Warriors had cleared Curry to complete individual on-court work for this past week, but Kerr did not offer much detail on how Curry has progressed with that work. Theoretically, the Warriors will have a whole week to increase Curry’s workload for two-on-two, three-on-three and full-court scrimmages with contact. Yet, it remains unclear if Curry will need more time to knock off any rust and handle any setbacks.

2. Can the Nuggets relieve Jokic’s burden? The Nuggets did not share as much clairvoyance on if they can integrate Murray and/or Porter Jr. in time for the playoffs. The Nuggets will then need to rely on Jokic to post Kia MVP-type performances. That leaves Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, Monte Morris, Jeff Green and Bones Hyland to relieve pressure off of Jokic. They all have cracked double digits in points this season partly because of Jokic’s persistent double teams and his superior passing. As for the Warriors? They don’t have many center options because of James Wiseman’s season-ending right knee injury and the organization’s decision to prioritize positional versatility. But the Warriors have adopted another “Strength in Numbers” identity that helped the team absorb the overlapping absences to Curry, Thompson and Green. The Warriors are also bullish that a combination of Green and Kevon Looney at the center spot can compensate for their lack of size.

3. How will the Warriors play with their three stars? In theory, Curry, Thompson and Green can pick up right where they left off when they won three NBA titles in five years. But the Warriors only have three other players that have played with them beyond one game. The rest of the roster has yet to fully experience what it is like to play with all three players. That dynamic might relieve the pressure for Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins to produce at the same rate they did during the Warriors’ previous injuries. But they also might face difficulties with adjusting to a relatively reduced role on the fly in high-stakes games.

Number to know

16.3 — The Nuggets outscored their opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Nikola Jokic on the floor, but were outscored by 7.9 per 100 with him off the floor. That differential (16.3 per 100) was the biggest among 261 players who played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team. The differential was bigger on offense (12.3 per 100), but was also significant (4.1 per 100) on defense, especially when you consider that Jokic was generally on the floor against the opponents’ best offensive players.

The differential was even bigger (22.6 points per 100 possessions) over the Nuggets’ four games against the Warriors, with Golden State outscoring Denver by 19 points (scoring 121.2 per 100) in Jokic’s 56 minutes off the floor. But those Jokic-off-the-floor minutes break down to plus-21 for the Warriors in 27 minutes with Curry (who played in three of the four games) on the court and minus-2 in 29 minutes with Curry off the court. For the full season, Curry had the ninth biggest on-off differential (12.1 points per 100 possessions) among those 261 players that played at least 1,000 minutes. And in the 89 minutes with both MVPs on the floor, the score was Warriors 192, Nuggets 192.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Unlike during their five Finals runs, the Warriors won’t just breeze through the first-round without many hiccups. The Nuggets have beaten the Warriors in three out of four regular-season matchups and Jokic can dominate against anyone. It is possible Curry will need at least some games in this series to knock some rust off his game. Still, the Warriors would only lose this series if something catastrophic happens to one of their three stars. Otherwise, Golden State simply has more talent and depth than Denver. Warriors in 6.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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