The Denver Nuggets are in the postseason for the fourth consecutive year, and are one of just two teams to get past the first round in each of the last three seasons. This time around, Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets face perhaps their biggest opening round challenge yet, as they take on the championship-tested Golden State Warriors.
The Nuggets have been a part of the No. 3-No. 6 matchup in each of the last two seasons, however it was Denver with home-court advantage in 2020 and 2021. Now, the Warriors will play four of seven on their home floor at the Chase Center where they were absolutely dominant this season.
The Warriors had the NBA's second-best home record in 2021-22, winning 31 of their 41 home games. But if any team in the league is equipped to steal home-court advantage away in this series, it's the Nuggets. Denver set a franchise record for road success, winning 25 games this season away from Ball Arena, and had the fourth-best road record in the league.
While Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson have all missed significant time this season, the Warriors still managed to have the fourth-ranked net rating this season, powered by a No. 2-ranked defense, but falling behind with a 16th-ranked offense.
On the Nuggets side, their numbers were boosted by a powerful offensive attack. Their No. 6-ranked offense and 15th-ranked defense led to the 11th-best net rating in basketball this season.
Battle of the Big Men
Of course, how far the Nuggets go is determined by their MVP-frontrunner and one of the best players in the game today in Jokić. In four games against the Warriors this season, Jokić averaged 28.0 points, 15.8 rebounds, and 8.8 assists. However, he never saw Draymond Green, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Green has historically had success against Jokić, holding him well below his averages in previous seasons. But Green has yet to face this version of Jokić, a player who is not only in the midst of his best individual season, but is having one of the most efficient seasons in the history of the NBA.
Jokić and Green are two of the smartest players in the league today, so the mental battle between these two is just as vital as the physical battle. As always, the Nuggets star is going to get his elite statistics, but he'll also need to rely on his teammates.
Down in the post, Aaron Gordon is another massively important aspect of this series for Denver. As Jokić gets significant attention, it becomes Gordon's responsibility to pick his spots, get open for easy opportunities, and hit shots. Gordon had his most efficient season shooting the ball, surpassing 50% from the field and 60% True Shooting for the first time in his career.
When Jokić faces expected double-teams from Green, Kevon Looney, or even Andrew Wiggins and Jonathan Kuminga, it's almost a guarantee that he'll make the right play. When he makes that play, it now comes down to another vital factor of this series.
Guards and Wings
The backcourt collection of Will Barton, Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, and Bones Hyland are tasked with making life easier on Jokić as a difficult series progresses. They can do this by hitting open shots and providing some defensive relief on what could easily be one of the greatest backcourts in NBA history in Curry and Thompson.
Morris is in the midst of a career year, shooting 39.5% from beyond the three-point line. He also performed extremely well in three games against the Warriors this season, averaging 16.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists on 46.7% from three.
Hyland is also proving himself to have no fear, as the 2021 first-round draft pick has cemented himself as the Nuggets' back-up point guard, hitting nearly 40 percent of his threes since becoming a major part of the rotation in mid-January.
Making open shots is only half the job, as Rivers and Barton figure to be essential in slowing down Curry, Thompson, and Jordan Poole. Head coach Michael Malone tasked Rivers with being the team's primary perimeter defender. “I was talking to Austin this morning, if you look at all the clips and the film that we watched as a staff recently, Austin had tremendous examples of defending," Malone said of Rivers at a team practice. "He actually won defensive player of the game for us twice in our matchups against them."
There will also be plenty of spotlight on wings Jeff Green and JaMychal Green to hit those same open shots while dealing with All-Star Andrew Wiggins on the defensive end. Nuggets starting forward Jeff Green had some thoughts on how to be successful in this series at a practice earlier in the week. “It’s about honing in on what they do best, and trying to take that away."
"And after the game – win or lose – we have to go back and we have to get better each game. It’s always about the small details when it comes to the playoffs.”
If the Nuggets plan on continuing their streak of making it out of the first round, it's going to require a complete effort from every part of the roster. Reigning MVP Jokić is going to do all he can, but winning in the playoffs is a team challenge, not an individual one.
On an individual level, the health of Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Curry will continue to be monitored. Curry appears to be a go for Game 1, but could be facing a minutes restriction. As for Murray, Malone hinted that he is considered doubtful at this time, but that the door has not been closed on a return.
Denver has to double down on what has worked for them so far this season. Run the offense through Jokić, hit open shots, and steal victories on the road. If they can do this while playing serviceable defense on Curry, Thompson, Poole, and Wiggins, winning this series can be within reach.
Nuggets (48-34) vs. Warriors (53-29) Series Schedule
Game 1: Nuggets vs. Warriors; Saturday, April 16, 6:30 p.m. MST; ABC
Game 2: Nuggets vs. Warriors; Monday, April 18, 8:00 p.m. MST; TNT and Altitude TV*
Game 3: Warriors vs. Nuggets; Thursday, April 21, 8:00 p.m. MST; TNT and Altitude TV*
Game 4: Warriors vs. Nuggets; Sunday, April 24, 1:30 p.m. MST; ABC
Game 5 (if necessary): Nuggets vs. Warriors; Wednesday, April 27, TBD
Game 6 (if necessary): Warriors vs. Nuggets; Friday, April 29, TBD
Game 7 (if necessary): Nuggets vs. Warriors; Sunday, May 1, TBD
*Games 1-7 broadcast on Altitude 92.5 FM radio