Denver and Golden State tip off on Saturday (Getty Images)
After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
The only downside to this Denver Nuggets/Golden State Warriors matchup is the potential for seven one-sided games with the home team taking the victory every time out. That’s it. All the other aesthetic checkmarks — from entertaining play to new blood to the potential for breakout stars to the evenly matched rosters set to clash — are in place. The only way this series can disappoint is if each game is out of reach for the eventual loser by the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
Of course, we may not have to worry about that disturbing end, either.
The Nuggets took the season series with by a 3-1 mark, but one of those wins was a one-point victory and another came after 58 minutes of basketball and two overtimes. And though Andrew Bogut does not look healthy as he enters his first playoff series in seven years, the Nuggets are infamously countering that unfortunate news with the fact that Danilo Gallinari (one of the team’s top secondary ball-handlers, scorers, and floor-stretchers at either forward spot) is out for the rest of the season, Kenneth Faried’s ankle injury could have him at less than 100 percent for at least a few more weeks, and it may take until the offseason until Ty Lawson’s fully recovered from his heel injury.
That’s the extent of the bad news, here.
The rest of the picture features a pair of shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson that could get hot enough from long range that the Nuggets could even go down in five contests, a shot to the bow of a Denver team that posted one of the better home records of all time in 2012-13, winning 38 games in 41 attempts. When one possession can equal three points, with relative ease, seasons can turn on a dime. And no amount of defensive scheming from Andre Iguodala can make up for a skip or extra pass in a delayed transition attack, or a Warriors offense that continues to add new (sometimes moving, sometimes not legal) wrinkles under coach Mark Jackson.
That transition attack is dependent on the Nuggets missing shots, though, and this is why most are giving Denver the edge in this series. The Warriors are a mediocre defensive team that struggles to protect the rim even with Bogut in full force, and the Nuggets’ endless slashing and massive heaps of points in the paint (with or without the addition of fast-break layups) could have Golden State scrambling in its playoff debut under Jackson. The Warriors haven’t reacted well to quick-pass artists all season, and while Denver can’t touch Golden State when it comes to spacing the floor (the team is 25th out of 30 NBA squads in 3-point percentage), that hardly matters when a turned head or whiffed defensive assignment leads to yet another lay-in.
So this is what we’re left with. One team that depends on depth and a highly stylized version of basketball anarchy (which, of course, is coached by George Karl) and another team that is hoping to bank on the ridiculously effective 3-point shooting touch of the often unguardable Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. All while hoping the various other swaying factors (Harrison Barnes playing aggressive ball, Iguodala making a respectable percentage of his free throws) blow the sails in one team’s favor.
In the end, I think it all settles in a standardized way. I think each team wins at home, leading to a Denver win. And I’m more than confident that this will turn into a fantastically entertaining series that we wish could be turned into a best of nine.
PREDICTION: Nuggets in 7.
Things are looking up for David Lee and Stephen Curry (Getty Images)
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Denver Nuggets: Use all that long-armed wing depth to throw the kitchen sink at Stephen Curry.
The Warriors led the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage, paced by record-setting sharpshooter Stephen Curry and backcourt partner Klay Thompson. But while Thompson’s a marksman in his own right, knocking down better than 40 percent of his 3-pointers in each of his first two NBA seasons, Curry’s the one who really strikes fear in the hearts of defenses — he’s averaged just under nine 3-point attempts per game since the All-Star break, and he’s making more than 46 percent of them. (Somehow, none of those numbers are typos.)
That should be especially nightmare-inducing for the Nuggets, because not only did Curry hit 16 of 24 attempted long balls in four games against them this year, but Denver’s shaky 3-point defense is the rule, not an exception — the Nuggets allowed the second-most 3-point attempts and makes in the NBA this year, tending to shade toward the lane (11th-fewest points in the paint allowed in the league this season) at the expense of not running opponents off the line. That’s a bit of a problem here, because Curry doesn’t need much time, room or opportunity to carve a defense to ribbons.
Starting Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson will likely draw the Curry assignment to open the series, but while that’s worked in Denver’s favor at times, it also very much hasn’t at others. If Curry again begins calmly popping over the top of the 5-foot-11 (maybe) Lawson, Karl’s going to have to be willing to go switch-heavy and tap into his impressive array of wing defenders — starting with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Andre Iguodala, then hopping to key reserve Corey Brewer, rookie Evan Fournier and even larger hybrid forward Wilson Chandler — to try to slow Curry’s roll with length and strength.
It’s not an ideal scenario, because any switch that moves Lawson off Curry puts him onto a larger offensive player, where his height and inability to anchor in the post (where players like Thompson and Harrison Barnes would promptly take him, one suspects) figure to make him a prime target. But Karl has to be willing to lose the battle to win the war — if Thompson and Barnes are finishing possessions with jumpers from the block, that means Curry’s not finishing them with rainbows from beyond the arc, which is all the Nuggets should really be caring about in a series in which they’ve got superior depth and scoring ability, as well as home-court advantage. Try everything you need to in order to keep Curry from beating you, even if doing so feels like gambling, and you’re probably moving on to Round 2.
Golden State Warriors: Andrew Bogut staying on the floor.
It wasn’t exactly the smoothest season in Oakland for the 2005 NBA Draft’s top pick, as ankle and back injuries limited him to just 32 games and less than 800 minutes for Mark Jackson’s club this season. But as the Warriors made their push toward the postseason after the All-Star break, Bogut began to come on stronger and better resemble the game-changer he was expected to be when imported from Milwaukee in exchange for Monta Ellis at last season’s trade deadline.
Between March 4, when Bogut returned from a six-game, back-injury-induced absence, and April 9, when the Warriors clinched their playoff berth, the Aussie averaged 5.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.9 blocks in 27.2 minutes per game — not eye-popping numbers, but good and consistent ones. Golden State went 12-6 during that 18-game stretch, outscoring opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions with Bogut on the floor, according to NBA.com’s stat tool, and allowing about two fewer points-per-100 than their 13th-ranked season-long mark. Bogut wasn’t the level of stopper he used to be with the Bucks before injuries started to take their toll, but he was helping — and, judging by the fact that Golden State scored a sterling 108.4 points-per-100 when Bogut played in those games and just 101.6-per-100 when he sat, it wasn’t just about defense.
At first blush, not much about the Warriors’ upcoming series with the Nuggets seems to be about defense. As I wrote Thursday, what gets our blood pumping about this matchup is the clash between two of the highest-octane offenses in the NBA — a Nuggets squad that plays at the league’s second-fastest pace and ranks fifth in points scored per possession, and a Warriors side that finished fifth in pace and 10th in points-per-possession. But while the temptation for Jackson might be to downsize and give heavier minutes to smaller units like the effective game-closing lineup of Curry, Thompson, Jarrett Jack, David Lee and Carl Landry, those groups typically have a very difficult time defending the rim (that unit has allowed opponents to shoot 67.6 percent in the restricted area), which is a real kiss of death against a Denver team that led the league in restricted-area attempts and points in the paint.
For Golden State to beat Denver, they can’t rely solely on Curry, Thompson, Lee and Jack producing enough points to outscore a deeper team; they need to chip away at the Nuggets’ lights-out scoring, too. Golden State won’t stop Denver from entering and scoring the paint — George Karl’s embedded that attacking motive too deeply in his team’s DNA for any defense to dissuade it. But if Bogut can withstand the uptempo game for the 30-or-so minutes he typically played during his most productive stretch of the season, he provides the Warriors’ most effective deterrent to drivers, a massive roadblock adept at contesting without fouling and forcing detours in the lane. If he can’t — if the speed’s too much for him, if he picks up early fouls, if the recent late-season return of his ankle woes winds up being a major factor — then there won’t be much to stand between Denver and the rim, and as we’ve learned throughout this season, that usually means it’s hard to beat them.
PREDICTION: Nuggets in 6.
Kenneth Faried (Getty Images)
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Andre Iguodala: During his time in Philadelphia, Iguodala was often criticized for not being able to score like the star the franchise hoped he was. Since his trade to the Nuggets, Iguodala has settled into a more fitting role, one where he can focus on what he does well and not take on an undue portion of the scoring load. That situation has changed a bit with the injuries to Danilo Gallinari and others, but the Nuggets don’t expect Iguodala to carry their offense in this series. That’s a good thing, because it’s not his game.
This postseason should help Iguodala settle into that role on a grander scale. While the majority of basketball fans are keenly aware of Iguodala’s excellent defense, it’s still the case that he’s been defined in terms of what he can’t do for most of his career. If Iguodala plays a big part in locking up the Warriors’ perimeter scorers, chances are he’ll be acknowledged for what he can do. He might not be the star the Sixers hoped he’d become, but he still has a ton to offer a playoff team.
JaVale McGee: We know that McGee is a goofball with incredible natural talent, and we will likely hear it many more times from announcers over the course of this series. Thankfully, more sensible discussions of McGee seem to be reaching another level, one where breathless cataloguing of his mistakes has given way to a certain level of comfort with the idea that he might be something between an All-Star and a hilarious bust.
McGee impressed enough in last spring’s first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers to earn a lucrative contract this summer, and that series might be responsible for many of the more optimistic takes on his ceiling. With Andrew Bogut hobbled and potentially unavailable entirely, it’s not unreasonable to think that JaVale could dominate the interior and have another stellar set of games. Yet, given what we know of his production over a full season, it’s possible that the best thing for McGee’s career would be to serve as one contributor to the Nuggets’ greater project. We’ve seen enough of JaVale over the years to know that his breakthroughs are often followed by regressions. A measure of stability wouldn’t be the worst thing for his career — several more years of people wondering why he’s not an All-Star is a recipe for continual disappointments. It might do him some good to function at a high, professional level with little flair. It’d be a new development for his career, but not an impossible one.
Stephen Curry: Anyone who sets a single-season record for 3-pointers is bound to get his fair share of positive press. However, the accolades for Curry are really just the culmination of a season in which he became a star after years in which he was viewed as a very talented offensive player with papier-mache ankles. This mostly healthy season has changed that opinion — it’s not insignificant that Curry will be seen as the most obvious All-Star snub from 2012-13 for some time.
However, the playoffs tend to have a major effect on how we compare stars against each other. Like James Harden, Curry will see his baseline star level set during this postseason. Is he a very good player in need of a secondary star to elevate the team? Or can a team build around him without having to gamble on a high-risk/high-reward player in a trade or free agency? All views rate Curry positively — the question is if that’s enough for the Warriors to get to the championship level owner Joe Lacob has promised.
David Lee: The Warriors organization adores Lee — he puts up impressive scoring and rebounding numbers, was the franchise’s first All-Star in 327 years, and is generally boring enough in public to avoid any grand controversies. Yet, opinion on Lee is divided — his ASG selection and contract suggest a star, but his problematic defense and limited ability to create offense point to a secondary option.
Most advanced considerations of Lee’s game tend towards the latter take, but it’s still true that the Warriors present him as if he’s a nationally recognized star. That argument will be much harder to make if Lee doesn’t play a big role in the Warriors’ success, whether by scoring or acting as a passer on the pick-and-roll. He doesn’t have to dominate, but he does need to look like more than a defensive liability.
PREDICTION: Nuggets in 7.
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