Warriors Bogut Curry Lee ThompsonI’m probably not the one to go to for Golden State Warriors predictions. Not only did I say they’d fall short in a Blogger’s Roundtable segment on the Warriors’ own website before the season started, I even told Warriors General Manager Bob Myers the same thing in person during the season’s first week.

My skepticism looks a little silly now, but I couldn’t get past the injury concerns the Warriors were perpetually burdened by until this season. When I spoke with Myers during a dinner the Warriors invited me to (I’m such a heel), Brandon Rush had just been lost for the season to a nasty knee injury. But that wasn’t all — Stephen Curry tweaked his ankle during the preseason and Andrew Bogut could barely move at the beginning of the regular season. I knew the team was considerably more talented than it had been ever since Chris Cohan signed off on trading Jason Richardson for the rights to Brandan Wright and a trade exception they’d never use, but how much time would that talent spend on the court together?

We’re left to wonder what could have been with Rush, but Curry played 78 games. Bogut battled through ankle trouble and lower back soreness throughout the season, but the Warriors got by without him (splendidly at times) and played just enough with him to show where his defensive strengths could fit in, even with his mobility diminished. The Warriors didn’t just make the playoffs, they earned the sixth seed. They also beat the Heat in Miami, got in a fight in Indiana, saw Curry set an NBA record, and wore jerseys with sleeves a few times. It’s been a full season.

It’s also been a season that seems to preface what could be a nice multiyear run for Golden State, but that doesn’t mean we need a slogan yet. It’s time to forget “We Believe” — the Warriors were the 8th seed then (they haven’t finished as high as No. 6 in the Western Conference since Chris Webber’s rookie season). Forget “We Belong” too, while we’re at it. It’s corny and unbecoming. The Warriors don’t have to say they belong, they have to play like it.

Enter the Denver Nuggets.

Actually, one problem is that the Warriors are entering the Denver’s domain tomorrow afternoon. The Nuggets went 38-3 at home in a season where they barely lost at all in the second half, regardless of where they played. They finished 24-4 after the All-Star Break, scoring 108.2 ppg during that time while allowing 100.2. The Warriors are playing the underdog role for a reason, but they have a few things on their side.

The Best Player

With all apologies to David Lee, the Warriors’ All-Star, Curry is the biggest star on the team and in this series. When he’s on, Curry can only really be stopped by teams that double-team him and get physical. That’s one reason why the Nuggets are a better matchup for the Warriors than a team like the Spurs, who’d knock Curry to the floor a few times just to show him what’s up.

As Ethan Sherwood Strauss brought up in our most recent BASGcast, if the Nuggets try to stop Curry with Andre Iguodala, that could open up opportunities for Klay Thompson to post up Ty Lawson — which would then force the Nuggets to sit Lawson and keep Andre Miller in the game instead (the Nuggets used to lead the league in tattoos, now they lead the league in guys named Andre).

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but Curry will be forced to be a facilitator at times unless George Karl decides to let Curry see if he can beat the Nuggets all by himself. After all, when Curry scored 54 in Madison Square Garden and 47 at Staples Center, the Warriors lost both games.

The Faried Factor

The Nuggets’ energetic power forward is questionable for Game 1 with what sounds like a pretty serious ankle sprain suffered on less than a week ago (April 14). Kenneth Faried wants to play, but in a seven-game series where Denver has homecourt it’ll be tempting for Karl to rest him.

The styles mesh

We won’t hear either head coach tell a sideline reporter how they need to make sure the game is played at “our tempo.” Both teams like to keep things moving, as the Nuggets played at the second-fastest pace in the league while the Warriors were fourth. While this doesn’t mean we’ll see a bunch of 120-118 shootouts, the Warriors won’t face a team dead set on taking away what they do best, either — take and make threes. Thanks in large part to Curry — with considerable help from Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack —  the Warriors were better from beyond the arc (40.3%) than any other team in the NBA.

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You knew it was coming. You knew I wouldn’t become a believer that quickly. The Nuggets are the higher seed and the favorite in this series because …

Ty Lawson’s speed

Lawson is probably the fastest player while dribbling of anyone in the league, and that’s something Denver will try and exploit both in transition and in the halfcourt. The Warriors’ interior defense can be exploited, especially if Lawson can get inside and get Bogut to commit, opening up easy dunks for Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee. And if Curry expends all his energy trying to stop Lawson, that’s an added bonus for the Nuggets.

Put-back dunks

This is my stat to watch this series, although I’m probably going to have to be the one who keeps track. That could cause problems. Anyway, if we see the Nuggets (who grabbed more offensive rebounds than any other team in the NBA during the 2012/13 season) grabbing their teammates’ missed shots and flushing the ball in the same motion too many times, the Warriors have no chance in this series. Lee and Carl Landry have to box out like Dennis Rodman in his prime, and not just on free throws. Offensive boards are an area where Faried’s health matters quite a bit — he averaged 4.5 per game against the Warriors this year. But the Nuggets have other guys who can come up with second-chance points.

Andrew Bogut’s ankle

He’s gotten a lot of flack ever since he came to Oakland in the Monta Ellis trade, but the Warriors are a better team when Bogut is on the floor simply because he gives opponents a reason to be cautious in the paint. He was still blocking and changing shots in Portland the other night, even though it was clear he couldn’t move all that well after missing a couple games with a bone bruise in his surgically-repaired left ankle. If he can’t play I’m not sure what Mark Jackson does to keep the Nuggets from dominating inside. Festus Ezeli has had a few nice dunks lately, but nothing the rookie center has done so far this season shows he’s ready to be a key contributor in a playoff series. Andris Biedrins doesn’t even seem like he wants to play anymore. Putting Lee and Landry together spells disaster defensively. With Wilson Chandler (who has absolutely been on fire lately) looking like he’ll play a lot at the four, it might behoove Jackson to go REALLY small and play Harrison Barnes at power forward.

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Playoff guessing game

The phrase “nothing to lose” applies perfectly to this series. If there’s any franchise that’s in a spot where they can come out loose and have a good time, it’s the Warriors. Mark Jackson’s job is 100% safe. None of the players on the roster need to prove themselves after previous playoff embarrassments. They all like each other quite a bit and a recent Instagram post from David Lee shows how they love proving wrong doubters like ESPN, who gave the Warriors a 0% chance to make the playoffs before the season started (even I wasn’t that harsh).

If the Warriors come back from Denver with a split, suddenly the Nuggets start clenching and the Warriors become the favorites. It’s not like this Denver team has ever done anything in the postseason (they took the Lakers to seven in the first round last year), and Oracle Arena is going to damage some ear drums.

But getting a split is going to be obscenely difficult for reasons I can’t ignore:

  • The Nuggets are deeper, with a legitimate nine-man rotation. The Warriors will be hard pressed to give significant minutes to more than seven guys.
  • The homecourt advantage cannot be ignored. At that altitude, Game 2 could be rougher than Game 1.
  • Some playoff experience is better than no playoff experience.
  • Chandler is going to be a nightmare matchup for the Warriors. Barnes needs to stay out of foul trouble, no easy task.

As much as I’d love to see the Warriors blitz the Nuggets with defensive stops and transition threes and win Game 1 … my head tells me Denver will hate their time at Oracle Arena but will steal one game in Oakland, while the Warriors are powerless to stop the Nuggets’ in Denver. Just like my thoughts on the Warriors making the playoffs before this season started, I hope this prognostication is wrong.

Prediction: Nuggets in six

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Also, you’re all invited to what should be a great event at Rouge SF (on Broadway and Polk) tomorrow. The doors open at 1 pm (Game 1 tips off at 2:30 pm), and the gang at Warriorsworld invited me to come on their pregame, halftime and postgame shows, which will be broadcast online. Once I get a link to the live video stream I’ll post it here on BASG.

We’ll be giving away Amici’s t-shirts and gift certificates, and I’m hearing there will be a trivia contest and other giveaways too. The event is open to people of all ages and anyone can come — more details can be found here. Hope to see you there!