PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Denver Nuggets

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SEASON RECORDS
Denver: 57-25 third in the West
Golden State: 47-35 sixth in the West

SEASON SERIES
The Nuggets won the season series 3-1, which included two 11 point victories and a double overtime win in their first match up of the season. The Warriors lone win was by a single point when David Lee dominated with a 31 point, 9 rebound performance while taking Kenneth Faried to school. However, the last time these teams faced off was January 13th and since then both teams are improved and battle tested.

KEY INJURIES
Denver: The big injury is the torn ACL that will keep Danilo Gallinari out  for this series (and any other the Nuggets may play these playoffs). Kenneth Faried is nursing a sprained ankle which kept him out of Denver’s final 2 regular season games, but is hopeful he can return for game one.

Golden State: Andrew Bogut is dealing a sore ankle but should be ready to go for game one. Draymond Green (knee tendonitis) and Andris Biedrins (lower back tightness) both missed the Warriors’ season finale, but both should also be fine to play in this series. Brandon Rush missed the entire season with a torn ACL and remains sidelined.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Nuggets: offense 107.6 (5th best in NBA), defense 102.0 (11th in NBA)
Warriors: offense 104.2 (10th in NBA), defense 102.6 (13th in NBA)

Differential: Nuggets +5.6 (5th in NBA), Warriors +1.6 (11th in NBA)

THREE KEYS FOR GOLDEN STATE:

Stephen Curry: Curry is known for his silky jumper with the lightning quick release, but if the Warriors are to prevail in this series he’ll need to be more than just a scorer. The Warriors are at their best when he mixes his shot making with creating for others. If he can effectively find that balance this team gets very, very dangerous. When Curry is guarded by like sized defenders (I’m looking at you, Ty Lawson) he can score in bunches. But if the Nuggets switch Andre Iguodala or Corey Brewer onto him, Curry will need to find ways to beat the defense with his playmaking by using the threat of his own offense to generate good looks for others.

David Lee: Lee is the Warriors’ All-Star and against the Nuggets he’s going to have to play like it for them to advance. Lee offers a multi-faceted game that can be used to bludgeon the undersized Faried, but he must be assertive in working his way into the post rather than just floating around the perimeter as a jump shooter and faciltator. Lee’s rebounding will also be key as the Nuggets are one of the best at corralling their own misses and getting second chance points. If Lee can be a paint presence on both sides of the floor over the course of the entire series, the Warriors chances to win this series go up dramatically.

Protecting the paint: The Nuggets lead the league in shot attempts at the rim and points in the paint. Stopping them from getting and/or converting those looks is the most important part of the Warriors defensive game plan. To do so Andrew Bogut will need to prove healthy and fit enough to get up and down the floor to patrol the middle and deter shots without fouling. The Warriors will also need to commit to getting back on defense to ensure that they aren’t destroyed by Denver run-outs in transition.

THREE KEYS FOR DENVER:

Ty Lawson: On any given night any one of a handful of players can carry the mantle as Denver’s “best”, but Lawson will need to consistently be that guy for the Nuggets in this series. With Curry attacking him on one end, Lawson will need to give as much (or more) than he receives in the battle at the point. Lawson will need to push the pace, get into the lane, hit his jumper, and create for his teammates out of the pick and roll and when working in isolation. If he does all those things while not getting destroyed on defense, this series tilts Denver’s way rather clearly.

Wilson Chandler: With Gallinari injured, someone will need to pick up the scoring slack and Chandler is the Nuggets’ best option to do so. He has the ability to stretch the floor as a shooter, but can also get into the paint off the dribble or in transition to finish inside. For the Nuggets to generate the type of spacing they’ll need to maintain their dribble drive attack, Chandler will need to hit shots on a consistent basis. And, if he can have an explosive scoring night or two, he could easily turn the series in Denver’s favor — especially if one of them comes on the road.

Three point defense: The Nuggets were 29th in the league in both opponent three point field goals allowed and three point field goals made. Meanwhile, the Warriors led the league in three point field goal percentage and were 8th in total threes made. Needless to say, if the Nuggets allow the Warriors to simply camp behind the arc and shoot the long ball, they will be in trouble as Curry, Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack and company roast them. Denver’s pick and roll coverage will need to be sharp to deny those step back shots that Curry loves and they’ll also need to effectively help on penetration and recover back out to shooters in order to run guys off the line and into less efficient shots.

OUTLOOK

From a sheer entertainment standpoint, this series has a chance of being the best match up of the entire first round. Both teams bring high octane offenses built on fast paced attacks, though both offer different means to get to those ends. The Nuggets want to run for dunks and lay ups while the Warriors want to run into early offensive chances that set up their jump shooting attack. Whichever defense does a better job of limiting the looks their opponent has thrived on all year has the best chance of winning, though it won’t come easy for either side.

The interesting part is that the Warriors offer the more diverse offense and should be able to put stress on the Nuggets through that varied attack. With Lee and Carl Landry working the interior and Curry, Thompson, and Jack working the perimeter, the Warriors can bring a balance that the Nuggets should have trouble containing. Add in Warriors’ coach Mark Jackson’s penchant for attacking the mismatch until the opposing team finds a way to stop it, and the formula is there for Golden State to give Denver fits on the offensive side of the ball.

That said, the Nuggets’ offensive approach can overwhelm opponents and it’s not yet clear the Warriors have enough defense to force them into adjustments. With Denver’s speed and ability to attack the paint, it’s likely Golden State will struggle to defend the rim. That will not only allow points in the paint, but will also set up open shots from the outside that the Nuggets can knock down even if they don’t boast the best stable of shooters. Add in Andre Iguodala’s all court game and ability to create shots for himself and teammates, then combine it with the Nuggets athleticism at power forward and center, and the defensive challenges for the Warriors only get more difficult.

PREDICTION:

Styles make fights and both teams’ attacking style should make for a great series. That said, the Nuggets are nearly unbeatable at home and I think they’re going to use that advantage to it’s fullest by claiming all four home games. Denver in 7.

NBA Power Rankings: Toronto return trip to Finals? It could happen.

NBA Power Rankings
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This is the penultimate NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings (we’ll have one next week before the playoffs start) and we have a new No. 1 in Toronto. Once again this ranking only covers the 22 teams invited to the NBA restart in Orlando.

 
Raptors small icon 1. Raptors (51-19, 5-1 in the bubble, Last Week No. 2). Toronto has locked up the two seed in the East and it has done that with its defense — the Raptors are the best defense at the restart, allowing less than a point per possession. The offense has been good enough but not championship level (second worst in the bubble, ahead of only the Lakers) and Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and company must lift that up if the Raptors are serious about a repeat.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (56-16, 3-4, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo will almost certainly be sitting out the Bucks final seeding game after headbutting Moe Wagner (the suspension is coming). It doesn’t really matter, the Bucks have the No. 1 seed locked up. The Bucks played it slow with the ramp up through the restart, but now they are healthy (Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton are with the team) and we will see if the strategy worked.

 
Lakers small icon 3. Lakers (52-18, 3-4, Last week No. 1). The Laker offense has woken up in flashes — a 137.8 offensive rating against the Nuggets (complete with a Kyle Kuzma game-winner), or watching Anthony Davis drop 42 on the Jazz. But the offense has stumbled through other games and LeBron James admitted he is still adapting to playing without fans in the building. It’s all a small sample size and doesn’t matter because the Lakers are the No. 1 seed, but if they face the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard in the first round, they need to be better.

 
Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (48-23, 5-2, LW 8). Winners of four in a row, and that includes a 22-point thumping of the Raptors that should be a confidence booster heading into the playoffs. Versatile teams make deep playoff runs, and a guard/wing rotation with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — is exactly that. Boston looks like a real threat in the East.

 
Clippers small icon 5. Clippers (47-23, 3-3, LW 4). Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble and going through quarantine, which means Doc Rivers may have a full roster of players for the Clippers final seeding game (Friday, against Oklahoma City, a game that could have seeding implications on the West) and into the playoffs. The Clippers shooters need to find their legs and there are chemistry questions because this team hasn’t played together, but they are still a title contender.

 
Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (44-26, 4-2, LW 5). Houston has the fourth best defense in the bubble. Let that sink in. If a team with James Harden and other bombers from three (plus Russell Westbrook) is also defending at a high level, then you are looking at a title contender. Whether they can defend like that against a taller team for seven games remains to be seen, but Houston’s defense has looked legitimate in the bubble.

 
Heat small icon 7. Heat (44-27, 3-3, LW 7). Jimmy Butler got in T.J. Warren’s face, shut down the leading scorer in the bubble, and the Heat got a statement win against the Pacers, their likely first-round opponent. Butler has been a perfect fit into the Heat culture and his ability to rise to the occasion in the playoffs could see Miami challenging the presumptive power in the East in the second round of the playoffs.

 
Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (43-28, 4-2 LW 9). T.J. Warren is a lock for the All-restart team, his scoring leap has been one of the wonders of the bubble. But, Jimmy Butler holding Warren to a 5-of-14 shooting night this week is concerning, mostly because come the playoffs the good teams can always take away (or at least slow down) offensive option Plan A, and it’s a working Plan B (and C and D) that gets teams deep into the postseason. Do the Pacers have that with Victor Oladipo right now?

 
Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (43-27, 3-3, LW 6). Their seeding may come down to the final day of “seeding games” on Friday when Chris Paul takes on his former team, the Clippers. It’s a potential playoff matchup with another former CP3 team, the Rockets, that has NBA fans (and television network executives) buzzing. That would be fun to watch, and the series could turn on how many minutes (and how well) the recently returned Andre Roberson could cover James Harden a game.

 
Blazers small icon 10. Trail Blazers (34-39, 5-2, LW 11). Damian Lillard is on a tear — 112 points last two games on 55% shooting — that has put the Trail Blazers in the drivers’ seat for a return to the playoffs. Win on Thursday and Portland is the eighth seed, meaning they only need to win one-of-two play-in games and they will be back in the postseason (against the Lakers in the first round). Gary Trent Jr. has been a breakout star for the Blazers in the bubble.

 
Nuggets small icon 11. Nuggets (46-25, 3-3, LW 10). Jamal Murray was back on the court over the weekend and instantly was hitting big shots and showing how important he is for the offense. Combined with the emergence of Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets offense has looked good (top 10 in the bubble). However, Denver has the worst defense in the NBA restart and that makes it very vulnerable to a first-round upset (regardless of who the Nuggets face, and that is still up in the air).

 
Suns small icon 12. Suns (33-39, 7-0, LW 17). BREAK UP THE SUNS! Phoenix was an afterthought in the West heading into restart but a 7-0 record has it on the brink of getting into the West play-in tournament. The Suns need to beat the Mavericks and get some help (a Memphis or Portland loss), but even being in this position is impressive. Devin Booker has made his case for bubble MVP.

 
Mavericks small icon 13. Mavericks (43-31, 3-4, LW 13). Luka Doncic has been magical in the bubble, but the Dallas defense has been terrible (third worst in the bubble) and because of that the Mavericks don’t scare anyone heading into the playoffs. It’s not written in ink yet, but a first-round matchup with the Clippers seems destined (and that bad wing defense by Dallas makes that a brutal matchup for them).

 
Spurs small icon 14. Spurs (32-38, 5-2, LW 15). The playoff streak of 22 years is going to need a lot of help to stay alive. The Spurs need to beat the Jazz on Thursday (and Utah is playing for seeding) then get losses from two of the Grizzlies, Blazers, and Suns. Even if the streak dies, the bubble has been another testament to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich. He overhauled the LaMarcus Aldridge/DeMar DeRozan system they played all season to go with a fast-paced four-guard/wing lineup that has been fun to watch and won games. Derrick White has been one of the breakout stars of the bubble.

 
Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (42-29, 3-3, LW 12). No Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid is expected to be back for the playoffs (and maybe the final seeding game)but will be coming off a tweaked ankle. The 76ers will almost certainly face the Celtics in the first round. Al Horford has played well in the restart, and if Matisse Thybulle, Alec Burks, Josh Richardson and others can find chemistry together this is still a good defensive team. But they don’t scare Boston right now.

 
Jazz small icon 16. Jazz (43-28, 2-4, LW 14). The Jazz have struggled with critical aspects of what they want to do — defend the paint, hit threes, much more — during the restart, but have shown flashes of it coming together in recent games (Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles have both had strong games). Still, this was a team all about elite defense the past two seasons, but in the bubble their defense has been average and the offense has not been good enough to carry the load. If the defense doesn’t improve (particularly on the perimeter) it doesn’t matter who they play.

 
Nets small icon 17. Nets (35-36, 5-2, LW 20). It was a rag-tag roster thrown together late because of all the players the Nets lost, but Jacque Vaughn coached this team to wins over the Bucks, Kings and Clippers, and the Nets have locked down the seven seed (avoiding the Bucks in the first round… not that Toronto is a pushover). Chris LeVert and Jarrett Allen have shown why they should get minutes next season on a deeper Nets roster. Joe Harris has shown why the Nets need to back up the Brinks truck and re-sign him this summer.

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (32-40, 2-5, LW 16). Orlando struggled in a run of games against some of the better teams in the East, and that has locked them into the eighth seed — meaning they will face the Bucks in the first round without Jonathan Isaac or Aaron Gordon. Good luck with that. If you’re a Magic fan looking for a bright side… Gary Clark has shown some flashes. That’s all we got.

 
Grizzlies small icon 19. Grizzlies (33-39, 1-6, LW 19). Ja Morant shot a respectable 34.3% from three for the season, but that has fallen to 25% in the bubble and its one of the things holding the Memphis offense back (no Jaren Jackson Jr. hurts, too). Despite all that, the Grizzlies can advance to the play-in game if they can find a way to knock off the Bucks on Thursday (Milwaukee may be without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension for headbutting Moe Wagner).

 
Kings small icon 20. Kings (30-41, 2-5, LW 21). Sacramento’s playoff drought is now up to 14 seasons, the second longest in NBA history. Whatever is happening on the court, the Kings have been getting it right in the community and that includes their latest effort, “Rally the Vote,” which is working with 19 other professional sports teams to encourage people to register and vote.

 
Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (30-41, 2-5, LW 18). The rumors about Alvin Gentry’s job status have been around for a while and picked up a lot of momentum after the Pelicans entered the restart with so much hype, only to have the pieces not quite fit together (and Zion Williamson not be fully available at the start, although that was beyond Gentry’s control). Would a strong Xs and O’s coach help put the talent of the Pelicans in better positions? Would New Orleans ownership okay a coaching change during a pandemic when there is a short offseason and financial losses are piling up? It’s worth watching.

 
Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-47, 0-7, LW 22). The Wizards were always a longshot for the playoffs, the hope was to find some young guys who might fit well in a rotation next to John Wall and Bradley Beal next season. Washington found a couple, Troy Brown Jr. and big man Thomas Bryant have played well in the restart. They deserve a longer look next season as the Wizards try to put a playoff-level team on the court and then keep it healthy.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.