For many NBA teams, the real season begins this weekend.
The Golden State Warriors are just happy that their season does not end this weekend.
For only the second time in 19 years, the Warriors are in the NBA playoffs. Oakland, the greater San Francisco Bay Area and Warriors fans everywhere are incredibly proud of their team and, compared to the fanbases of every other playoff team, feel a greater sense of accomplishment.
That doesn't mean that, come Saturday at 2:30 PM Pacific Time, anyone will be satisfied.
No, the Warriors and their fans will be as hungry as any fanbase in the league. After all, the only reason making the playoffs is so exciting is that it provides a window towards winning a championship.
Here's my complete 2013 Golden State Warriors Playoff Preview, something I've been waiting six years to write.
Despite their awful 23-43 record last season, the Warriors did not waste the 2011-12 campaign.
They added Andrew Bogut, Richard Jefferson and a first-round pick. They moved Monta Ellis, allowing for the development of rookie Klay Thompson. They gave Stephen Curry the end of the season off, allowing his right ankle to heal up.
They used their struggles to their advantage, finishing with the seventh-worst record and retaining their lottery pick that would have otherwise gone to Utah (it will this season).
The Warriors continued to build in the offseason, drafting Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green. They traded for Jarrett Jack, signed Carl Landry and re-signed Stephen Curry to a four-year extension.
They entered the season looking like a playoff team if healthy. Simply put, they stayed healthy enough.
Despite getting only 32 games from Andrew Bogut and essentially one from Brandon Rush, the 78 that Stephen Curry played were more than anyone—including himself—could have expected.
The strong play of Barnes and Ezeli, rookies thrust into the starting lineup, along with better-than-expected campaigns from Jack and Landry offset the injuries. It was then up to Curry, Lee and Thompson to decide where the team went, and suffice it to say they ended up sixth in the NBA's best conference.
Their first-round matchup with Denver may not feel like the sweetest of rewards, but for a team that had made the playoffs only once in the previous 18 seasons, it most certainly is.
I may have predicted them to do better than most preseason prognosticators did, but I still technically underrated the Nuggets and Warriors.
Golden State stayed healthier and played better in close games than I expected, while Denver had a 15-game winning streak.
Like your average No. 3 versus No. 6 series, there is a significant but not overwhelming difference between these two teams. The Nuggets are on the cusp of being a title favorite but are generally seen as a dark-horse title contender, while the Warriors are on the cusp of being a dark-horse contender but still generally seen as a one-and-done team.
The Nuggets went through the 2012 portion of the season playing disappointingly average basketball, going 17-15. After the new year turned, the Nuggets went 40-10, the best record in the Western Conference over that time.
They are now entering the playoffs playing championship-caliber basketball. They are the league's best offensive rebounding team, second-best scoring team and third-best at forcing turnovers. Head coach George Karl has an incredibly deep team in which each player is in a role where they can and are thriving.
Much like the 2006-07 "We Believe" Warriors, the 2012-13 Nuggets play relentless perimeter defense, force turnovers and use unparalleled athleticism to finish in transition. The "We Believe" Warriors were a better three-point shooting team, but these Nuggets have something far more dangerous—the deepest frontcourt in the NBA.
That's right, the Nuggets are the league's most athletic team and the league's deepest team inside. They also went 38-3 at home.
That makes them a legitimate title contender, and certainly makes them a bad matchup for the Warriors.
The Nuggets are the better team in this series. They also match up with the Warriors quite well.
Denver went 3-1 against Golden State this season, beating them by 11 both times they met up in Denver and splitting two nail-biters in Oakland.
The Warriors' biggest weakness as a team is their inability to defend skilled, athletic big men. DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and several others destroyed the Warriors this season.
Denver doesn't have any bigs of that caliber, but the combination of Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov and Anthony Randolph is scary.
For Golden State to have a chance in this series, they'll need their five main bigs—Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Festus Ezeli, Carl Landry and Andris Biedrins—to keep Denver's five in check.
Lee and Landry have no chance at stopping Faried and Chandler, so they'll have to neutralize their opponents' impact by playing well on the offensive end.
The center battle will be more interesting.
While the Nuggets have a longer, more athletic group of bigs, the Warriors do have the best center in the entire series in Bogut. If he is healthy, can play 25 minutes a night (he won't play 30 at Denver's pace) and keep the Nuggets' big men off the offensive glass, Golden State will have a fighting chance.
Ezeli and Biedrins must at least match the energy of Denver's other centers, and Ezeli needs to provide something offensively. Even if Bogut somehow plays 30 strong minutes, Koufos and McGee combine to play 41 a night. This means that Mark Jackson can ill-afford to go to his favorite frontcourt of Lee and Landry for more than 10-12 minutes a game, so the Warriors' backup centers will need to step up.
The Warriors have a backcourt edge over most teams in the NBA. Stephen Curry is a fringe MVP candidate, Klay Thompson is one of the league's best young shooting guards, Jarrett Jack is the league's best backup point guard and Harrison Barnes is an athletic freak.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets have the ability to marginalize this unit.
Before we get into that though, there are ways in which Golden State's backcourt could lead them to a series win.
First of all, Stephen Curry is the only superstar in this series and the only guy who can realistically carry his team to victory multiple times. His ability to heat up is very rare, and his ability to stay hot for four quarters is even rarer.
The only way the Nuggets lose to the Warriors is if Golden State somehow steal a game in Denver, and the best way to beat an unbeatable home team is with a transcendent scorer like Curry.
Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack are both incredibly dangerous complementary scorers. Jack has scored at least 15 points off the bench 31 times this season, while Thompson has gone for 20 points 30 times. Both players are so skilled at creating their own shot, both in transition and in the halfcourt, that a hot shooting night from either one will give the Nuggets fits no matter what the pace.
Not to mention that Curry and Thompson are the two best pure shooters in the NBA. If the Nuggets push the tempo (which they will), Curry and Thompson will get looks in transition. If they're on, all bets are off.
Now, to that unfortunate thing I talked about earlier.
Curry and Thompson are the NBA's best shooting backcourt, but Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala are the league's most athletic guard combination. Curry and Thompson may be unstoppable when their shots are falling, but Lawson and Iguodala can dominate night in and night out.
Both can get to the rim, finish, break down the defense, get the Warriors in foul trouble, open up rebounding lanes and tire everyone out. Iguodala is also an elite perimeter defender and will make it tough for Thompson all series.
Beyond that, Andre Miller is better than Jarrett Jack in several facets of the game, including defense and consistency. The length of Denver's small forwards Corey Brewer and Wilson Chandler (plays both SF and PF) will be tough for the rookie Barnes to contain.
The Warriors will surprise everyone by splitting the first two games in Denver. While the Nuggets are the best home team in the NBA, no club has played back-to-back games in Denver and spent six days there, as Golden State will.
This would make Game 2 seem like the more likely win, as Golden State will be acclimated to the altitude. However, Game 1 is also winnable, as Golden State will be in Denver for two full days before the game.
Curry and Thompson will go off in both games, meaning their team should win one.
The series will then shift to Oakland, where Denver will return the favor with a road win of their own. If Golden State wins Game 3 in front of a deafening Oracle Arena crowd, the Nuggets will use their playoff experience and superior talent to grab Game 4. If the Nuggets win game three, the Warriors and their fans will dig deep in Game 4 to ensure the series returns to Oakland.
The Nuggets win Game 5 in blowout fashion. If the Warriors don't have two wins at this point, the series ends.
Of course, since I've predicted that they will have two wins, there will be a Game 6 in Oakland. The Warriors will play their best game of the series, both because of the quick learning curve for their playoff rookies (almost everyone) and knowing that they must win to keep their season alive.
The Nuggets will make it tough on the Warriors, but ultimately fade late as they won't be able to match Golden State's intensity when they have the insurance of a Game 7 in the Pepsi Center, where they just don't lose.
And they won't. The Nuggets will end the Warriors' season in a seven-game series that should be the most entertaining of the entire first round.
Much like the Lakers-Nuggets meeting in last year's playoffs, the better, more experienced team will win the series, but the loser will gain incredibly valuable experience and walk away with their heads high and their eyes on joining the elite ranks next season.
What if the Warriors beat the Nuggets?
It's not a crazy notion. I believe they have a real chance to win one of the first two in Denver, and doing so means they're three home wins away from advancing. Considering that they beat the Nuggets at home once this season and lost in double-overtime in their other Oakland meeting, the idea of them winning three is not far-fetched.
When you consider that Andrew Bogut missed all four Nuggets-Warriors games this season, that Danilo Gallinari played in all four and that Kenneth Faried was fully healthy in all four, the Warriors' chances look legitimate.
So what if the Warriors advance?
Barring a monumental upset courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State's second-round opponent would be the San Antonio Spurs.
In other words, barring a monumental upset courtesy of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Warriors won't be fighting for a conference title this season.