Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors, NBA, NBA Playoff Preview, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors

The Long Two: Warriors-Nuggets, 76ers-Raptors headline first round

The Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets feature three of the smartest and most creative stars in the NBA. How will their first-round matchup play out?

The NBA playoffs have a way of selecting for the most disciplined, intelligent and adaptable teams, but it’s still rare for the first round to deliver the kind of chess match that could unfold between the Warriors and Nuggets. This series will come down as much to feel as it does to talent, with artful strokes of skill ornamenting every possession.

These have been two of the most pleasant teams to watch this season, each with one of the two best offensive players in basketball spearheading highly improvisational systems in their own unique ways, and stars who process the game and move the ball better than perhaps any of the NBA’s other elite players.

What will decide the matchup between the Warriors and Nuggets?

It’s impossible to discuss this series without considering what it could have been were it not for the cruelty of injury. Steph Curry missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a sprained left foot, and will likely be a game-time decision for Game 1; how soon and how effectively he’ll play is the biggest and least knowable question going into this series. For the Nuggets, Jamal Murray hasn’t played at all this season, while Michael Porter Jr. missed all but nine games with recurring back issues. Neither has been ruled out for the playoffs, but there are no strong indications that either will play.

Yet even with Curry’s status uncertain and the Nuggets missing two key players, this series will allow us to watch the best offensive player in basketball work against one of the NBA’s best defenses. That battle is headlined by Nikola Jokić and Draymond Green — arguably the best offensive and defensive players, respectively, of their generation — but it will play out largely on the team level. This may be the best defense Jokić has ever faced in the playoffs, and the efficacy of the Nuggets’ fluid pass-and-cut offense against the Warriors’ connected, shape-shifting defense will likely decide who moves on to the second round.

Denver’s offensive end of the floor presents a couple of fascinating stylistic and statistical contrasts. In the regular season, the Warriors allowed the most shots in the NBA from four to 14 feet, while the Nuggets shot the fourth-highest percentage of any team from that range. Jokić has long been a master of those shots, shooting 62 percent on floaters this year, and the Warriors were willing to give him that shot out of the pick-and-roll in the regular season:

Against most bigs, conceding a floater is preferable to a layup or kickout 3, but Jokić hits those shots with such accuracy as to change that calculus. Do the Warriors bring their bigs higher up on the floor? Bring help into the lane from the weak side? The bigger question, however, is how Golden State chooses to defend Jokić when he has the ball in the high and low post. As one of the game’s best passers and scorers, Jokić will inflict pain against any kind of defensive coverage, and the Nuggets constantly move cutters and shooters into high-value areas of the floor. Play Jokić straight-up with a single defender, and he’ll get into his bag of spins, fakes and hooks or drop moon balls over the top of the defense; send a second defender at him, and he’ll almost always find an open teammate (often without even looking). “Defending” him, then, is only a matter of mitigating the damage.

Many teams take the approach of slowing down the superstar and “making the other guys beat you”, but that’s a harder proposition to live with when forcing the ball out of Jokić’s hands often just amounts to letting him find a wide-open teammate. During the regular season (in which Green missed all four games against the Nuggets), the Warriors seemed content letting Jokić work one-on-one against Kevon Looney without bringing much help in the post, and that may be the best way for them to start this series. As unstoppable as Jokić is as a scorer, he’s even deadlier when he can exploit defensive gaps with his passing, and sending additional defenders at him only widens those gaps.

Green is the Warriors’ most dynamic center and best option as a one-on-one defender of Jokić, and it will be a matter of when, not if, those two go head-to-head. Expect Steve Kerr to play that card judiciously, though. If the Warriors use their usual starting lineup, Looney — the biggest body in Golden State’s rotation — will get the first crack at defending Jokić, allowing Green to roam as a help defender while sparing him the physical toll and foul trouble that comes with wrestling a balletic grizzly bear on the block.

No Warrior other than Looney stood much of a chance against Jokić in the regular season, so switching actions involving Jokić is probably out of the question. The reigning MVP also mashes undersized opponents on the offensive glass, and while the Warriors are an excellent defensive rebounding team with Green on the floor, they must be hyper-vigilant about finding and putting a body on Jokić every time one of his teammates shoots.

If Golden State can remotely contain Jokić with just one defender, its help defenders are smart and connected enough away from the ball to deny cutting layups and wide-open spot-up 3s. The Nuggets have enough offensive non-threats in their rotation that the Warriors’ savvy defenders should be able to sink into the lane and discourage layups. If Jokić proves uncontainable with a single defender, Denver is short enough on secondary scoring threats that forcing the ball out of his hands and daring other Nuggets to shoot may be the Warriors’ best strategy.

The Nuggets shot just 35.6 percent on 3s this season — tied for 17th in the NBA — and feature multiple players that the Warriors will actively leave open to plug holes elsewhere. Murray coming back would help tilt Golden State’s defense away from Jokić, but otherwise that responsibility will fall primarily on Will Barton and rookie Bones Hyland’s shoulders. Denver will need consistent scoring from at least one of those two, reliable secondary playmaking from Monte Morris and at least some offensive punch from the backcourt ensemble of Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes and Facundo Campazzo. (Yikes!)

On the other end of the court, the Warriors may not mercilessly attack Jokić in pick-and-roll like Chris Paul and the Suns did (especially if Curry isn’t himself), but Golden State’s free-flowing motion offense could still exploit his lack of footspeed on the perimeter. Looney affords Jokić something of a hiding spot, but when the Warriors downsize with Green at center, he’ll have a difficult time keeping up with all of the handoffs and screening actions the Warriors will run him through.

Shooters like Curry, Thompson and Jordan Poole will require Denver’s big men to get out on the floor and either contest shots or trap the ball, which will give the Warriors opportunities to play four-on-three. That could also render DeMarcus Cousins unplayable, which would slide more mobile bigs like Jeff Green, JaMychal Green and Zeke Nnaji to backup center. Poole also injects some downhill zip into the Warrior offense, and might be the player best equipped to target Denver’s bigs in the pick-and-roll. Golden State will need his on-ball creation, especially if Curry is limited or unavailable.

Another key bellwether on that end of the court will be how often the Warriors can get to the rim. Denver’s defense allowed the highest field goal percentage within four feet of the basket this season, and Golden State shot the second-highest percentage from that range — a product of frequent slips and cuts into the paint. But the Warriors didn’t generate many of those shots, and whether they can find more avenues to easy layups may well swing the series.

Absent a fully healthy Curry, the Nuggets rotate and recover well enough to theoretically limit Golden State’s easiest looks, and have a strong, agile on-ball defender in Aaron Gordon to throw at Curry. Denver was also the NBA’s best defensive rebounding team this year, and should limit Golden State’s second chances throughout the series.

Even if Curry is somehow at full strength, the Nuggets probably have the best player in this series — and thus, a fighting chance. Golden State, however, has more scoring options, a better defense and fewer weak links on both ends of the floor. If Curry misses more than two games, the series could turn Denver’s way. Otherwise, the Nuggets may be too depleted to hang with a healthy Warriors squad.

My pick: Warriors in 6

Sixers vs. Raptors: Who controls the pace?

There may not be a team in the Eastern Conference with more pressure to win in the first round than the Sixers, and no team with less to lose than the Raptors. Toronto got here by exceeding expectations, alchemizing into a defensive hydra that overwhelms opponents with length, activity and all-out effort. Philadelphia, meanwhile, has an MVP candidate in his prime, an aging second star and an urgency to maximize whatever time those two have together. The Sixers have the best player in the series by a wide margin — and potentially the two best players — but the Raptors’ frenetic style gives them a few distinct advantages that could help them overcome that top-end talent disparity.

Perhaps the defining question of this series will be how the Sixers negotiate the Raptors’ athleticism and activity on both ends, and whether they can slow the game down to their preferred pace. Only the Memphis Grizzlies created more offense in transition than Toronto this season, and while those opportunities are typically harder to come by in the playoffs, the Sixers had one of the worst transition defenses in the league and may lack the requisite speed and stamina to keep up with the Raptors in the open floor (especially with Matisse Thybulle not fully vaccinated and unavailable for games in Toronto). A fast-paced series heavily favors the Raptors, who have struggled in past playoff series to generate offense in the halfcourt and can more effectively impose their athleticism in the open court.

That lack of quickness could also hurt the 76ers on the defensive glass, where they were merely an average defensive rebounding team this season. By contrast, Toronto grabbed the second-most offensive rebounds of any team in the NBA, and the Raptors attack the offensive boards not by banging underneath the rim, but soaring in from the perimeter before opponents can box them out. They’re almost always quicker to loose balls than their opponents, and should manage to create second shot opportunities throughout this series. (Embiid could also punish the Raptors’ lack of size on Philly’s offensive glass.)

Toronto also forced their opponents into more turnovers this season than any other defense, and while the Sixers are generally a turnover-averse team (partly because of how much Embiid and Harden like to isolate), dealing with the Raptors’ length and aggression poses a different challenge than a typical regular-season game.

Of course, Embiid also poses a challenge Toronto isn’t accustomed to facing, though the Raptors have schemed against him as well as any team in the NBA since Nick Nurse became the head coach. Toronto is excellent at rotating on the fly and covering the entire court, which makes anticipating help defense difficult. No matter who Embiid’s primary defender is (there will be several), the Raptors will try to swarm his post-ups, force the ball out of his hands and recover to shooters or jump his passing lanes. Embiid will get his share of points from the free-throw line, but Toronto’s defenders are more disciplined than most, and Nurse will get creative in the kinds of coverages he throws at Embiid.

Help will come from every direction, and the Sixers will have narrow windows to attack a scrambling defense. It’s here they could be hurt not only by their lack of physical quickness, but their slow decision-making as well. As good as Harden and Embiid are at reading defenses with the ball in their hands, neither is a great ball-mover, and Philadelphia lacks an offensive connector who can keep possessions moving with quick decisions. The Raptors allowed more corner 3s than any team in the NBA this season, and those shots will be available so long as Embiid’s teammates are decisive when he gets off the ball, attacking before Toronto’s defense can recover rather than stalling out possessions.

The other key variable in this series will be the play of James Harden, who has looked slower off the dribble and struggled to put together consistent stretches of dominance as a Sixer. If he’s the second-best player in the series (or even the best player), Philadelphia might have an insurmountable top-end talent edge. But given his recent struggles and the Raptors’ arsenal of physical wing defenders, Toronto could pose a difficult problem for Harden to solve.

There’s no clear weak link in Nurse’s short rotation for Harden to single out in isolation, no lead-footed big man to torch on switches, and the Raptors will be comfortable switching screens to prevent Harden from getting downhill in the pick-and-roll. Harden only took 24 shots in two games against Toronto as a Sixer, and often struggled to separate from the Raptors’ rangy centers on switches:

If Harden can’t consistently beat defenders off the dribble, it will foist a massive amount of the scoring and playmaking burden onto Embiid and Tyrese Maxey’s shoulders. While Embiid has taken huge strides as a passer this season, Harden is still the team’s best playmaker, and if that source of offense dries up (at least partially) it’s hard to see where the Sixers find reliable offense outside of Embiid and Maxey.

Toronto has more ways to attack on offense, though none are as effective as simply tossing the ball to a superstar and letting him go to work. Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a dynamic scorer in the second half of the season offers some hope that the Raptors can avoid the kinds of droughts that have plagued them in the past, while Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have emerged as more reliable shot creators off the bounce.

Still, grinding out baskets in the halfcourt could be difficult for the Raptors, especially with Embiid waiting to deter shots at the rim. We’ll likely see Siakam and VanVleet go at Harden in isolation, and small lineups with Siakam or Scottie Barnes at center could create more space to attack by pulling Embiid away from the basket. Embiid will likely dare them to shoot, and how much those small-ball centers can make Embiid pay for helping off of them could be another pivotal battleground in the series.

Perhaps Maxey solidifies his leap this season with a breakout series, or role players like Thybulle, Harris, Green and Furkan Korkmaz make enough shots to punish the Raptors for overcommitting to Embiid. Or: Embiid may just be good enough that nothing else matters. It feels slightly more likely, however, that the Raptors coax Embiid into just enough missed shots and turnovers that Philly’s collective lack of speed, Thybulle’s unavailability, the absence of a reliable backup center and Harden’s inability to wear down tough perimeter defenders leave the Sixers on the losing end of a close series.

My pick: Raptors in 7

Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

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