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.

Report: Celtics to pursue Kemba Walker in free agency

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The Celtics appear set to lose Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in free agency.

That’ll open a lot of cap space and create needs at point guard and center.

A possibility at starting point guard: Kemba Walker.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer:

If they renounce all their free agents, the Celtics project to have about $34 million in cap space. That’s enough to offer Walker a max contract that projects to be worth $141 million over four years.

But the Hornets can offer Walker a super-max contract that projects to be worth $221 million over five years. Charlotte and Walker have described each other as the priority.

The Lakers and Mavericks are also reportedly interested in the point guard.

Boston will face plenty of competition. Walker’s stellar player has earned him multiple good options.

The Celtics – with talented young wings like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and plenty of draft capital – look like one. They still have a reasonably bright future, and Walker would elevate their present.

But the same could be said of the Mavericks with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The Lakers look even better immediately with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And the Hornets can offer all that money and the comfort of home.

There will be plenty for Walker to consider this summer.

Andre Iguodala: I broke my leg last year, but Warriors called it just a bruise

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Kevin Durant was reportedly in agony about not helping the Warriors deep into the playoffs. His teammates were reportedly frustrated he hadn’t returned.

Did Durant – who tore his Achilles just 12 minutes into his return after a month-long absence – feel pressured (internally, externally or both) to rush back?

Durant has yet to speak publicly on the saga, but Golden State forward Andre Iguodala can relate. He missed the final four games of last year’s Western Conference finals against the Rockets and first two games of the NBA Finals with what the team called a “left lateral leg contusion” (fancy word for bruise).

Iguodala on The Breakfast Club:

We have a really good training staff. I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Our training staff is one of the best in the world. And I feel like they got him back. The tough thing is, when you’re an athlete and you’re hurt, everybody is looking at you sideways. And then it being his teammate is harder, because everyone is feeding stuff in our head. “When is KD coming back? When is KD coming back?”

Last year, it happened to me. I missed last three games of the Houston series. It goes to Game 7. We barely get out of that series. And now they’re looking at me like, “When are you coming back?” And I had a fractured leg. But it’s being put out there like, “You’ve got a bone bruise.” I’m like, “Nah, it’s fractured.” So, I’m fighting with the team. I’m fighting with people. I’m fighting with the media. And then my teammates ask me every day, “How you feeling? How you feeling?”

So, with K, he’s getting it from everywhere, too.

What do they always say in sports? “Oh, he’s a tough guy. He plays through injuries.” You’re validated as an athlete if you win a championship or how tough you were. If you sit out, it’s like, “Ah, he’s not tough.”

This is a damning assessment of the Warriors. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but Iguodala is alleging at least one of two things:

1. They misdiagnosed him.

2. They downplayed the extent of the injury publicly.

It could have been both.

A misdiagnosis is obviously troublesome. But downplaying the extent of the injury brings its own problems.

As Iguodala said, that only increased chatter about his return. With so many people talking to him about coming back, it’d be only natural to feel pressure to return. Iguodala is exactly right: Playing through injury gets players praised as tough.

Golden State misleading the public about the injury would also cause issues as the NBA embraces gambling. That opens the door for certain bettors to get inside information.

This sounds a lot like the Durant situation.

The Warriors can talk about how much they care about their players. But a pattern is emerging of injured players being put into peril.

It might be too late with Durant, but Golden State must address this.

The strangest All-NBA ballot

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Remember those odd All-NBA votes? Dwyane Wade, Luke Doncic, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Drummond on the second team, Marvin Bagley III on the third team.

One voter – Kennegh Lau of BesTV, a Chinese outlet – is responsible all those. His ballot:

First team

G: Stephen Curry (Warriors)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: Kevin Durant (Warriors)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Klay Thompson, Klay (Warriors)

G: Dwyane Wade (Heat)

F: Danilo Gallinari, Danilo (Clippers)

F: Luka Doncic, Luka (Mavericks)

C: Andre Drummond, Andre (Pistons)

Third team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

A couple other standout All-NBA votes: Michelle Beadle of ESPN voted Eric Gordon third team at guard ahead of Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, etc. Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette voted Domantas Sabonis third-team forward ahead of LeBron James (who played more minutes than Sabonis!).

There are outlier votes for every award. You can dig through all the results here. Massimo Lopes Pegna of La Gazzetta Dello Sport (an Italian newspaper) apparently submitted his All-NBA team as his All-Defensive team (though it doesn’t exactly match his actual All-NBA team). Beyond that, these votes aren’t necessarily wrong. The consensus isn’t always right.

But All-NBA voting has taken heightened importance with its super-max connection. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Ballots like Lau’s will increase scrutiny on the system.

That’s an overreaction. There are 100 voters so no single ballot carries too much importance. Again, it’s OK for someone to stray from the consensus.

It’d still be good to reconsider the salary incentives of All-NBA, though. The players who had the best regular seasons – my All-NBA criterion – aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the highest salaries in years to come. It’s a flawed link, and that goes far beyond Lau’s ballot.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.