Ranking Warriors' Ideal 1st-Round Playoff Matchups

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 24, 2022

Ranking Warriors' Ideal 1st-Round Playoff Matchups

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    The Golden State Warriors' hopes of securing the Western Conference's No. 1 seed were extinguished a while ago.

    And once Stephen Curry was lost to a foot injury earlier in March, that effectively put the No. 2 seed out of reach too.

    Now it's all about trying to maintain the third seed over the final nine games.

    If Curry can return for the playoffs, then Golden State's goal of winning a championship won't change. For that to happen, the Warriors need to reclaim momentum, and that starts with handling their first-round opponent. So let's rank the three most favorable matchups among Golden State's realistic opponents.

3. Utah Jazz

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    Of Golden State's four most likely first-round opponents—the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves—the Jazz are the only team the Warriors have a winning record against (2-1). They are also the coldest of the four, going just 5-5 over their past 10 outings.

    So why don't they rank any higher?

    For one, they are only a season removed from having the NBA's best record and kept the majority of that core. They also pace the quartet and rank second overall in net efficiency rating at plus-6.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. They have an elite scorer in Donovan Mitchell, maybe the league's most effective defender in Rudy Gobert and a supporting cast loaded with long-range threats.

    Saying that, they aren't exactly loaded with perimeter stoppers, which can be an issue when playoff opponents force Gobert out of the middle. When Golden State gets it going from long range—as it did during its 123-116 win in Salt Lake City on Jan. 1, shooting 17-of-32 from distance—it might have more point-producers than this defense can handle.

2. Dallas Mavericks

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    Look, would it be ideal to draw Luka Doncic in the opening round? Not at all. Dallas' superstar has averaged a ridiculous 33.5 points on 49.4 percent shooting (39.2 from range), plus 9.5 assists and 8.8 rebounds in 13 playoff contests.

    Still, the Mavs are searching for their first series win with Doncic, in large part because, outside of him, no one worries an opposing defense. Forcing anyone else on the Mavs to beat you can be a winning strategy, especially if Tim Hardaway Jr.'s fractured metatarsal keeps him stuck on the sideline.

    Dallas is also ill-equipped to exploit Golden State's lack of size. After trading away Kristaps Porzingis at the deadline, the Mavericks don't have a big who can consistently put points on the board. Dwight Powell paces their bigs with just 8.2 points per game, and any points tallied by this center group are typically spoon-fed by Doncic or one of the Mavs' other perimeter shot-creators.

    The trio of Doncic, Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie could put a lot of pressure on Golden State's perimeter defenders, but if the Warriors pass that test, they could ace the series.

1. Denver Nuggets

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    There's some serious be-careful-what-you-wish-for potential here, as the Warriors are strapped for size and the Nuggets have a 6'11", 284-pound MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic manning the middle.

    But if Golden State has Curry back, it will take more than one player—even one as absurdly skilled as the reigning MVP—to take down this team. That's where Denver feels vulnerable.

    The Nuggets are awaiting the returns of both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. As Joe Vardon relayed for The Athletic, Nuggets sources have conceded it's possible neither one makes it back for the playoffs.

    With no Murray or Porter, there is no second scorer on the roster. Will Barton comes closest at 14.5 points per game, but that's more or less what he averaged last season, when he trailed Jokic, Murray and Porter in the offensive pecking order (12.7).

    The Nuggets are forgettable on defense and don't have a great option for guarding Curry, who had 82 points in three games against them.

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