By Daniel Paiz
Welcome to your Mile High Basketball cheat sheet, as the Nuggets have earned a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA playoffs. After a season of dealing with injuries and figuring out the rotation, Nikola Jokic and company get to face the battle-tested Golden State Warriors. If you’re Golden State, you are very happy Steph Curry is set to play in game 1, potentially with a minutes restriction. If you’re Denver, it’s another barrier to overcome in a season full of them.
Denver relies on the MVP…
There is no secret to the Nuggets’ success this postseason: likely repeat MVP winner Nikola Jokic is the guy that will drive this team. His scoring, his passing, and his improved defense will determine how the Warriors decide to play Denver. It’s more likely than not the Warriors will take a page out of the Suns’ playbook and run high screens and pick and rolls from the top of the key. Jokic has improved defensively and relying on three pointers is what the opponent will do to minimize his impact.
After the Serbian savant, the Nuggets are going to need consistency from Aaron Gordon and Will Barton. Both guys can make impact shots, but both guys can also go very quiet. Quiet will lead to a shorter series, and not in Denver’s favor. Both of these guys are jump out of your seat exciting, and yet unbelievably frustrating sometimes. Let’s look back at one game that gets to my point.
That exciting Nuggets’ OT victory against Los Angeles on January 22 was quite a game. Prior to looking at the box score, I thought Gordon had a much worse shooting night from downtown. He hit the big three to win it all. That pass from Jokic was amazing. Look at Barton’s stat line. Barton is allegedly the number two scoring guy behind Jokic, and he had the least scoring of all starters that night. That includes playing eight more minutes than Jeff Green, who had 12 points that night. Monte Morris nearly had a triple double despite not great shooting.
Thankfully for Denver, they have rookie phenom Bones Hyland. It is unlikely Bones will be the second leading scorer for the Nuggets, but he packs a punch off of the bench, and is still learning the league. Rookies this season have made quite the splash, and Bones should keep doing so for the Mile High City.
…but needs more than just Bones to win
The starters will have to be complimentary in scoring. Jeff Green and Monte Morris will need to step up. The bench, consisting of Austin Rivers, JyMchal Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Davon Reed and Bryn Forbes will also have to provide sparks when called upon. Cousins has found new life in Denver and provides additional post presence to what the Greens and Gordon already do.
Reed has earned his callup from G-League affiliate Grand Rapids and has the potential to be a game breaker. Forbes was brought in at the trade deadline to do the same. He had success in San Antonio, and also won an NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bucks last season. Forbes has to find his rhythm from the jump, so that the rest minutes for the starters can be extended, and so that Golden State scrambles in deciding which players to give more attention defensively.
It would also be nice to see Vlatko Cancar and Markus Howard get some bench minutes as well, but it won’t happen. Coach Mike Malone likely already has his rotations decided, and the unfortunate thing is, if we see Howard and Cancar a lot, it likely means a blowout is happening one direction or the other.
Golden State deserves all of the accolades they’ve earned this season, as they’ve been without numerous players. James Wiseman hasn’t played all season, Klay Thompson took some time to get back, and Steph Curry and Draymond Green missed some games here and there. The Warriors weren’t sure Curry would be playing in Game 1; luckily for them, their bench of Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Gary Payton II, Damion Lee and Otto Porter Jr. pack some shooting chops. Golden State will be expected to push the pace, make shots, and pressure Denver on the defensive side.
That being said, underestimating Nikola Jokic is not something I can do. You could tell him he is going to have to play this series against Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo and he’d be ready to go (thankfully THAT’S not happening). This Denver team has gone through a lot this season, and there’s a chance Gordon/Bones/Morris/Barton all step up consistently. The odds seem against Denver, even though the stats show it could go either way.
However, the Nuggets won three out of four regular season games versus Golden State, including both games on the road. I have to believe that 25-16 road record for Denver will come into play. If as a team Denver can go 50% or better from the field, 37% or better from downtown (3P%), and 80% or better from the free throw line, then they can win this series. Nuggets in 7, although it will be a tough series.