So much for needing a superstar to be an elite team in today's NBA. The Denver Nuggets are headed to their ninth straight postseason, tying a franchise record that dates back to the legendary Doug Moe, and will take on the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors.
Though he may never be revered the same way Moe is in Denver, George Karl has cemented himself as the Nuggets franchise's next legend. He navigated through an ugly early-season slump and brought Denver all the way to a 57-25 record, the No. 3 seed in the West.
It didn't start out that way for Karl's bunch, though, as they struggled mightily in the first quarter of the season. Brought forth mostly by a difficult schedule, the Nuggets began the season 11-12 and looked like a danger to miss the postseason midway. A torrid second half of the season followed, including a 15-game winning streak, and the Nuggets finished strong despite some injury issues late.
Denver presents quite the contrast to its opponent, Golden State. The Warriors started their season 22-10, showing brilliant flashes of efficiency offensively and a surprisingly strong defensive acumen. The offense didn't slow down—especially from three-point land—but the defense regressed to the mean as Golden State played .500 ball the rest of the way to finish 47-35.
That being said, fans in Oakland aren't complaining. This is the Warriors' first playoff appearance in over a half-decade, and they'll look to make the most of it when this series hits Oracle Arena for Games 3 and 4.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of when and where to watch Denver's first-round matchup with Golden State along with a prediction for the outcome.
|1||Saturday, April 20 at 5:30 p.m. ET||Pepsi Center in Denver||ESPN|
|2||Tuesday, April 23 at 10:30 p.m. ET||Pepsi Center in Denver||TNT|
Friday, April 26 at 10:30 p.m. ET
|Oracle Arena in Oakland||ESPN2|
Sunday, April 28 at 9:30 p.m. ET
|Oracle Arena in Oakland||TNT|
Tuesday, April 30
|Pepsi Center in Denver||N/A|
Thursday, May 2
|Oracle Arena in Oakland||N/A|
Saturday, May 4
|Pepsi Center in Denver||TNT|
Schedule via ESPN.
Regular-Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: Ty Lawson (16.7 PPG)
Rebounds Leader: Kenneth Faried (9.2 RPG)
Assists Leader: Ty Lawson (6.9 APG)
Biggest Strength: Creating Points in the Paint
The Nuggets finished first this season leading the NBA in points per game at 106.1. That number has crept up to an astounding 108.9 points a night since the changing of the calendar year, at which point Denver's schedule went from nightmarish to manageable.
Much of Denver's counting stats greatness admittedly has to do with its pace. Only the Rockets averaged more possessions per game than the Nuggets' 97.76 a night, per NBA.com, which often helps create gaudy numbers. For reference, the Hornets had a league-worst 90.86 pace this season, which gave them right around seven fewer opportunities per night.
And when factoring in pace, the Nuggets offense does downslide—only a bit, though. Their average of 107.6 points per 100 possessions ranked fifth in the regular season, according to NBA.com. Denver does this without any "superstars" by attacking the paint more relentlessly than any team in recent memory.
Though the NBA continues to smartly realize that three-pointers—even lower percentage ones—are often the best shots on the floor, scoring inside the paint remains the most efficient way to put up points in the league. The Nuggets were by far the best team in the league at scoring inside at 58 points per game, which was nearly 12 a night better than any other squad, per NBA.com. They took an astounding 55.7 percent of their shots this season inside the restricted area.
What's great about how Denver scores is that it works a myriad of ways to get inside. No team created more points per game off turnovers this season than the Nuggets, which coincides with their league-leading 20.1 fast-break points a night, per NBA.com. Every single time they get the ball—whether via a rebound or turnover—they're looking to push.
George Karl has helped create these opportunities by preaching aggressiveness on the defensive end. Denver attacks hard at opposing ball-handlers in pick-and-roll situations, creating turnovers that lead to easy buckets. And with their athletic bigs running the floor like gazelles, dunks like the one in the video above have become something of the norm.
Biggest Weakness: Spacing in the Half Court, Outside Shooting
The problem with Denver's offense comes when things slow down to half-court sets. A popular trope when discussing the Nuggets' playoff chances or lack thereof has been their lack of a superstar player.
They're viewed as a team of semi-stars, nice talents who would be better served being second or third banana on an NBA playoff team. There is some credence to that argument on a superficial level—at least from an NBA championship point of view. But Denver was quite good this season in "clutch" situations, which is the area most point to where teams need a "leader."
It's a straw man's argument, one made by people who don't actually watch games. Where folks could easily poke holes in the Nuggets' playoff resume is in their lack of three-point shooting and what it does to their spacing in the half court. Only two playoff teams took fewer three-pointers this season than Denver, offensive question-marks Boston and Memphis. And while many of the Nuggets' threes were of the more efficient corner variety, their 34.3 percent rate is the worst of any playoff team.
Most disconcerting for Denver is that most of those stats came with Danilo Gallinari in the lineup. The young forward—though not the sharpshooter many think he is—is one of the Nuggets' only consistently above-average perimeter options. Gallinari was the only Nugget who took more than three long-range shots per game and his 37.3 percent rate was second in the regular rotation behind only Wilson Chandler.
This was a team already with massive spacing issues prior to Gallo's injury. George Karl has consistently turned to having one of his players on the floor to stand out of bounds to create offensive spacing, which he detailed to Grantland's Zach Lowe back in February.
For the most part, Karl's team has adjusted well to being without Gallinari. It's scored 113.5 points per game over its last six and managed to keep up with its season-long rate beyond the arc. It's an encouraging sign, but it's also a small sample size filled with matchups against teams with questionable defenses.
Golden State is no peach defensively and loves to run. But postseason play historically slows down pacing-wise, leading to plenty more half-court sets. Denver will do just fine without Gallinari in the open floor, but it may see the true after-effects of his loss over a seven-game series.
Best Matchup: Nuggets' Cut Offense vs. Warriors' Cut D
One of the many reasons that Karl deserves some strong Coach of the Year consideration is that he completely understands the weaknesses and strengths of his team. That seems like an obvious statement—of course coaches know their team—but there's a difference between knowing and acting upon those traits.
Denver can't shoot from outside. Karl knows this and he's catered an entire strategy around not making his mediocre or bad shooters take bad looks from 25 feet out. It's why the Nuggets attack defensively on pick-and-rolls and why they run—getting into the paint and knocking down threes are calling cards of efficient teams; Denver can only do one.
In the half court, Denver has been able to work through its limitations from beyond the arc by emphasizing hard cuts to the basket. According to Synergy Sports, 11.2 percent of the Nuggets' finished plays—where "finished" denotes a possession ending in a field-goal attempt, free throws or a turnover—are done by cutters, the highest ratio in the league by a long shot. Denver ranks only 13th in proficiency in that area at 1.2 points per possession, but that's mostly due to the higher usage than anything else.
As one would expect, most of the Nuggets' baskets in those sets come from big men. Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos represent nearly three-quarters of Denver's possessions finished by cutters, per Synergy.
How they finish those possessions varies. Often you'll see a Denver player who was standing out of bounds re-establish himself quickly and take a bounce pass from Ty Lawson at the last second. That's a move most often employed by Koufos, who has quietly been great this season.
The most prevalent user of cuts in Denver's offense, though, is Faried. His motor has been well-covered throughout his career, and that's been especially helpful for him on offense, where he's still raw. This season, Faried has added a little bit of nifty misdirection to his game, swimming on a back cut when his defender thinks a pick-and-roll is coming.
That bit of subtlety could come up huge against Golden State. The Warriors allowed 1.22 points per possession to cutting finishers this season, who shot 62.3 percent in those sets, per Synergy. Golden State's bigs have a tendency to get lost in space and over-help a shade, which often sets up easy buckets underneath for their men.
In the video above, there's nothing special whatsoever about what the Lakers run. Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard simply recognize that Carl Landry is way out of position, Bryant sets an impromptu screen and Howard throws it down.
If those sets show up too often for Golden State, Denver won't have a problem alley-ooping its way to the second round.
Worst Matchup: Warriors' Outside Shooters
We've spent much of this space speaking positively of the Nuggets' aggression for good reason. It's what has made them who they are, and there aren't many people on this planet who would complain about nearly winning 60 regular-season games.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of unwanted byproducts of schematic aggression—ones that could haunt Denver against the Warriors. Particularly, it's Denver's propensity for giving up open three-pointers that should worry George Karl heading into this series.
By being so unrepentantly aggressive trying to make steals and trapping in pick-and-rolls, the Nuggets leave themselves vulnerable against teams that can break that pressure. No team allowed more corner threes—the most desirable shot in basketball—than Denver, according to NBA.com. They've also allowed the fifth-most attempts above the break as well.
That's led to the Nuggets ranking dead last in points per possession against spot-up shooters, per Synergy Sports. Allowing too many good looks is bad against any team, but will especially be the case against a Golden State team that can shoot the lights out.
During the regular season, no team hit a higher percentage of its corner threes than the Warriors' 45.8 percent rate, per NBA.com. They boast a roster that includes burgeoning young gunner Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, who just so happened to break the all-time single-season three-point mark this season.
This is a Golden State bunch with options from outside and a bevy of them. When Denver over-commits itself against pick-and-rolls as it does in the video above, the Warriors are going to find and knock down open shots. Despite catching an awful pass from David Lee, Thompson is still able to fully set and launch an open shot on that possession.
Points are going to come in droves during this series, but watch out if Golden State gets hot—things could get ugly in a hurry.
Key Player: Ty Lawson
The Nuggets may not have a "superstar" per se, but Lawson's peaks during the 2012-13 season had him nearing that status. Playing in 20 games since the All-Star break, Lawson has averaged 18.8 points and 6.4 assists per game while making over 50 percent of his shots.
According to NBA.com, Denver's offense is 2.5 points per 100 possessions better with Lawson on the floor. And since the All-Star break, that number has nearly reached five points per 100 possessions. Lawson is Denver's best and most important offensive player, and it really isn't that close at this juncture.
However, Lawson has been dealing with a lingering heel injury that kept him out eight of Denver's final 13 games. He played in each of the Nuggets' final four games and looked mostly like his pre-injury self, but his health is a question that lingers not only over this series but Denver's entire postseason.
With Gallinari out of the lineup, there is no question about who Denver's most important player is. Lawson and Gallo became the Nuggets' de facto options in crunch time, running a pick-and-pop that was deadly for opposing defenses. The Nuggets were insanely good offensively with those two on floor and will miss that two-man group during the postseason.
Replacing Gallo during the postseason will be Wilson Chandler, who has been solid at the job thus far. Chandler and Lawson even began running those same pick-and-pop plays with almost an equal amount of success. While Chandler isn't a high-volume three-point shooter like Gallinari, he is proficient with the ones he takes.
But key to those looks is defenses sucking in on Lawson. If a defender doesn't feel the need to hedge hard—if Lawson is at all slowed by the injury—then he can flash right back to Chandler without thinking twice. Lawson will have to prove his speed hasn't been hampered by the heel, and that set could be great against a Golden State squad that struggles against the pick-and-roll.
Perhaps the most under-covered aspect of this series is that both teams have fantastic home-court advantages. Denver lost just three times at the Pepsi Center this season, best in the NBA. The Nuggets' last home loss during the regular season was Jan. 18—otherwise known as three calendar months ago.
Golden State's fans aren't too shabby either. The Warriors went a very respectable 28-13 at Oracle Arena, and Oakland is seen as one of the more knowledgeable and underrated fanbases by people in the know. They almost worked as a sixth man on the floor in Golden State's upset of top-seeded Dallas in the 2006-07 playoffs and could do so again.
As such, this series is almost certainly going six or seven games. Expecting either Denver or Golden State to hit the road and take multiple games is asking too much.
That being said, there is little question about the ultimate victor of this series. Even without Gallinari and with all of their spacing issues, the Nuggets are one of the league's better and most intriguing teams. They've been dominant during the second-half of the season, a time in which Golden State has mostly lived on its early excellence.
The Nuggets will win for the simplest reason: They're just better.
Series Prediction: Nuggets in Six.