These days, everyone seems to be high on the Denver Nuggets. They’ve won 13 straight, including a 2nd game of a back-to-back road win against the Thunder in Oklahoma City, and are now just percentage points out of the 3rd seed. For the Warriors, this means that they’ve definitely joined their group of possible first round opponents, which most prominent features the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies. The 3 teams are all now within 0.5 games of each other in the standings, with the Clippers guaranteed at least the 4th seed due to their 1st place standing in the Pacific Division. The fact remains, though, that Golden State could potentially play any of the 3 in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, granted they hold onto the 6th seed.
So which teams DO the Warriors want to face? I think the obvious first choice has to be the Clippers. Though they are on paper just as good as the other two, the Warriors have seemed to do very well in their match-ups with the fellow long-time cellar dwellers. With a 3-1 season record against their division rivals, it’s the best record the Warriors have against any of the Western Conference’s top 5 teams. Here’s their records vs each:
San Antonio Spurs: 1-2
Oklahoma City Thunder: 1-2
Memphis Grizzlies: 0-3
Los Angeles Clippers: 3-1
Denver Nuggets: 1-3
So clearly, there’s an advantage against the Clippers that doesn’t exist against any of the other teams. Last year’s Warriors fared well against the Clippers, too. They went 2-2 despite finishing the season as the NBA’s 7th worst team. What is it that gives Golden State the edge? It’s not really clear. The two teams are similarly built, with a star PG and PF, and role players at the other starting positions. At center, both feature big defensive presences and both teams feature strong benches, led by Jamaal Crawford and Jarret Jack, respectively. More than anything, the Warriors edge over the Clippers has been mental. They seem to play like they BELIEVE they can beat them, much the same way that the 2007 Warriors knew they had an edge over the Dallas Mavericks. It’s clearly a point of pride for Stephen Curry and David Lee to go head-to-head with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
So with that out of the way, would the Warriors rather face Memphis or Denver, if the Clippers continued their downward spiral? I’d like to point out, first of all, that all of the Warriors match-ups with the Nuggets, as close as they might have been, were early in the year. None of them were against the team that has put together a 13-game win streak while winning 29 of their last 35. Call me crazy, but I’m still not nearly as worried about facing them as I would be the Grizzlies. With the season series against both teams already complete, it’s hard to say the Grizzlies have done anything but dominate the Warriors. They’re the only top team that’s managed to stay undefeated against Golden State, and have done so while playing 2 of the 3 games against them in Oakland.
Memphis’ strong front court has dominated the Warriors’, with both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combining to average better than 34 points and 21 rebounds. Where they have really limited the Warriors is on the boards, where David Lee has collected an average of less than 8 rebounds per game in more than 38 minutes. That’s the 2nd lowest total for Lee against any team, behind only Chicago (7 rebounds), in 2 games that Lee has averaged just 29 minutes per game. Lee has gotten his points (more than 19 points on nearly 56% shooting), but they’ve come at a high cost, with just 1.3 assists and 3.3 turnovers per game. The biggest difference here is that the Warriors have yet to face the Grizzlies with a healthy Bogut, but that’s true of basically any team, as Bogut has just recently begun to look like his old self. No doubt, a healthy center would do wonders for slowing down the Grizz big men and helping David lee carry the load inside. What scares me most of all, though, is that Stephen Curry has absolutely gone off against the Grizzlies this season, and still the Warriors have gone without a win. That’s not a good sign.
But back to Denver, who is being held up as a serious threat in the West right now. Many believe they’re a sleeper team to reach the Finals, with the Thunder faltering and the Spurs still without Tony Parker. As hot as they are right now it’s almost believable. But then I remember, that this is not the team they are. They’re hot, they’re playing well, and have been especially good at home, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. This team is still capable of playing the same kind of basketball they began the year playing, and they’re the exact kind of team that has always been exposed in the playoffs. For one, they’re small, but don’t stretch the floor with their big men. Kenneth Faried, for all his energy and rebounding, is still one of the worst defenders in the league, but plays the majority of the team’s PF minutes. Lee has absolutely dominated in the 4 games against the Nuggets, and the fact that Denver likes to play either Kosta Koufos or Javale McGee at C allows the Warriors to go to Bogut with relatively few disadvantages.
Another thing going for the Warriors is that the strength of their bench is at the top with Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, whereas Denver’s strength comes in numbers. You want more? The Nuggets have feasted on teams coming to The Mile High City on back-t0-backs, of which they will see none in the playoffs. All games will be played with 1 or 2 days of rest. Denver’s strong home-court advantage still exists, but when you look at their past regular and post-season performances, you start to see a trend. That home court advantage is far less strong when it matters most. Maybe it’s the fact that there aren’t any back to backs. Maybe it’s because teams are more prepared for Denver’s energetic style. In their recent stretch of playoff appearances, starting in 2004 (George Karl took over in 2005), the Nuggets are just 14-13 at home in the post-season. Compare that to their 70-48 record against playoff teams from each year, and it’s kind of underwhelming. The 14-13 mark falls short against even the same post-season opponents in the regular season. Somehow, someway, the Nuggets advantage is nixed in the playoffs. And that’s enticing as a fan who’s team might potentially face them.
Now, I’m not ignoring that this Nugget team is better than most past. There’s a reason that they’ve got a chance for the 3rd seed, while most of those other Denver squads finished somewhere between 4th and 8th. But of those 9 straight playoff teams, 4 of them won 50+ games and just one advanced outside of the first round. Certainly, this is something I could hang my hat on in a series against them. While typically, the thought of going into Denver presents a great challenge, it might not be as difficult for a rested team with time to prepare. The Nuggets are a team with no clear star, and no particularly great defensive big man. They make their money playing hard, aggressive and energetic. They don’t shoot the ball particularly well (25th in 3-point percentage), either.
What the Nuggets are good at, is forcing turnovers (2nd in the league), particularly in stealing the ball (2nd), blocking shots (3rd), and getting out on the break for easy transition points (1st). Guards Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala are the initiators. Like Memphis, they also do a great job on the offensive glass (2nd, behind the Grizzlies). But still, their team lacks a certain level of skill, especially down low, that all of the other top Western teams seem to have. It’s for this reason I consider them far more beatable than any of the West’s other top teams. Save for the Warriors odd edge over the Clippers, I’d be happy to draw the Nuggets in the first round. That doesn’t mean that the Warriors should be favored, but for me, it means they might have a little better shot than if they end up playing the Grizzlies
In the end, this is all just one man’s thoughts on something that may or may not happen. If the Warriors play their very best basketball for 7 games, they could beat any of these teams, and that’s all that really matters. But it’s sort of fun to think about who they might get, and who they might have a better chance beating. I know, though I like the Grizzlies, I’ll be rooting for them to end up playing Denver or the Clippers in the first round, leaving the other for the Warriors. Hopefully, at least. Golden State does still need to lock up the 6th seed for any of this to matter.