Who has the edge?
Guards: The Nuggets are preparing, as they should, as if Steph Curry will be healthy and available after recovering from a strained left foot. Few players in the NBA carry as much gravity and induce as much stress as Curry. His off-ball movement, 30-foot range, handle and vision will test the Nuggets’ defensive cohesion, which at times has been suspect.
And if that wasn’t daunting enough, Klay Thompson averaged over 30 points per game on 45% 3-point shooting in the final six games of the regular season. Among Denver’s guards, Monte Morris was easily the Nuggets’ most productive against Golden State this season. His 3-point shooting (47% in three games) will be vital in spacing the floor. Finally healthy for the postseason, Will Barton could be an X-factor in tilting the series in Denver’s direction. Edge: Warriors
Wings: Insulated by numerous stars around him, Andrew Wiggins no longer has the pressure of turning a franchise around like he did in Minnesota. Wiggins, who was an All-Star this season, has found a home with the Warriors and thrived in his role. His career-high 39% 3-point shooting is yet another weapon the Nuggets will need to account for. Aaron Gordon will likely draw the assignment on either Thompson or Wiggins, and he’ll need to quell at least one of their scoring streaks. Offensively, Gordon’s best mode of attack will be inside. He’ll likely have the strength advantage regardless of who guards him, and with cuts, offensive rebounds and early post-ups, Gordon could find success near the basket. Edge: Even.
Big men: Although the Nuggets went 3-1 vs. Golden State this season, Draymond Green wasn’t available for any of them. Now healthy, he’ll be ready and waiting to wreak havoc on Nikola Jokic’s offense. Nuggets coach Michael Malone paid him the highest compliment when he said he’s the guy that “makes that team go,” with energy, toughness, playmaking and defense. Green might leave defensive responsibilities on Jokic up to Kevon Looney to start, but once Jokic solves him, it’ll be on Green to mitigate the damage. The Nuggets’ fortunes hang on Jokic’s ability to handle the Warriors’ defensive coverages.
If starting forward Jeff Green can give the Nuggets any production offensively, it could go a long way toward alleviating attention on Jokic. Defensively, Jokic, Green and Gordon need to dominate the defensive boards. The last thing the Warriors need is more opportunities. Edge: Nuggets
Bench: Just because Bones Hyland won’t be scared of the moment doesn’t mean it’s an ideal situation to foist on a rookie. But Bones has earned the right to guide the second unit with his rare confidence, playmaking and scoring ability. Not to mention his speed, which distinguishes him from any of Denver’s other playmakers. Because of his defense, particularly on Curry, Austin Rivers is another X-factor. Even though he’s unlikely to start, don’t be surprised if Rivers is playing in crunch time in an effort to stymie Curry’s rhythm. Expect both JaMychal Green and DeMarcus Cousins to factor into the rotation both to leverage Denver’s size advantage and to spell Jokic for pivotal stretches. The Warriors have several difference-makers on their bench, including Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga. In small-ball lineups, Poole, a Most Improved candidate, could be closing games, while Kuminga’s burned the Nuggets already this season. Edge: Warriors
Coaching: In a less saturated year, both Steve Kerr and Michael Malone would’ve earned consideration from voters (this one included) for Coach of the Year. Kerr had to navigate a spate of major injuries to several key players and still managed to install the No. 2 defense in the league. He’s helped restore luster to a franchise whose championship window, some believed, had closed. Malone did another deft job with his injury-plagued bunch, too, and was rewarded with a contract extension for his efforts. Jokic makes any coaching job significantly easier, but to reach 48 wins without Jamal Murray or MPJ is an astounding feat, nonetheless. Edge: Even.
— Mike Singer
Five things to watch
1. Island living
The Warriors, like nearly everyone else, do not have a center capable of neutralizing Nikola Jokic one-on-one. Thus, they will face a familiar dilemma: Single cover Jokic and allow him to feast, potentially at the expense of his teammates? Or double-team and open up seams for Jokic to exploit with his passing and vision? While it goes against the Joker’s nature to attempt 25-plus shots/game (he did it five times all season), Golden State might not give him a choice.
2. Battered and bruised
Like Denver, the Warriors have been hobbled by injuries to key players all season. Guard Steph Curry missed the last 12 games with a foot injury. Sharpshooter Klay Thompson returned from a pair of long-term injuries (ACL, Achilles) in January after missing the past two seasons. And forward/offensive hub Draymond Green missed 36 games this year due to back issues. If all three suit up Saturday, it will be the first time they have faced Denver together since 2019.
3. History repeating?
The last time these two franchises met in the playoffs, the Nuggets were the No. 3 seed and the Warriors the No. 6 in 2013. Golden State signaled its impending rise toward elite status with an upset of Denver (minus Danilo Gallinari) in six games that also spelled the end of the George Karl era in the Mile High City. Can the Nuggets, more established than that up-and-coming Warriors squad, return the favor?
4. Survive and advance
The Nuggets are in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, but will not have home court advantage in opening round for the first time during that period. Each of the past three teams advanced to the second round, marking the first time the Nuggets won at least one playoff series in three straight NBA seasons. Advance again and Denver would have as many series wins over the past four seasons (5) as it had in the previous 33 combined (1985-2018).
5. Even Stephen
The Nuggets and Warriors faced off four times in the regular season, with Denver taking three of four — highlighted by Monte Morris’ buzzer-beating 3-point dagger Feb. 16. In an indication of how tight each of those games were, the cumulative score for the season series came out dead even: 439-439.
— Matt Schubert
Mike Singer, Nuggets beat writer: Denver’s best hope is that they happen to employ the best player on the planet. Their second-best hope is that the Warriors haven’t been too forthcoming on Steph Curry’s injury status, and he’s actually more hobbled than we’ve been led to believe. Either way, the Nuggets will have too many defensive holes to plug. Warriors in 6.
Mark Kiszla, columnist: Well, it all depends on how big of a splash Steph Curry makes coming off injury. If he’s less than 100%? Nuggets in 7.
Sean Keeler, columnist: Golden State coach Steve Kerr is “optimistic” about Steph Curry’s status, while Nuggets coach Michael Malone is “doubtful” about Jamal Murray’s. If Steph plays and the Blue Arrow doesn’t, this won’t end well. But it could end quickly. Warriors in 6.
Kyle Fredrickson, sports reporter: Nikola Jokic can only carry this roster so far. Plus Golden State is far too talented to lose in the first round. Warriors in 6.
Matt Schubert, deputy sports editor: The over-under for Nikola Jokic’s series points-per-game average is 29.6 on DraftKings Sportsbook. Bang the over, but brace for heartbreak. Jokic alone can make things interesting, but there’s just not enough bullets in the Nuggets’ revolver. Warriors in 7.