Warriors-Nuggets, 76ers-Raptors headline first round

The Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets function three of the neatest and most artistic stars within the NBA. How will their first-round matchup play out?

The NBA playoffs have a manner of choosing for probably the most disciplined, clever and adaptable groups, nevertheless it’s nonetheless uncommon for the primary spherical to ship the sort of chess match that would unfold between the Warriors and Nuggets. This collection will come down as a lot to really feel because it does to expertise, with clever strokes of ability ornamenting each possession.

These have been two of probably the most nice groups to look at this season, every with one of many two greatest offensive gamers in basketball spearheading extremely improvisational techniques in their very own distinctive methods, and stars who course of the sport and transfer the ball higher than maybe any of the NBA’s different elite gamers.

What will determine the matchup between the Warriors and Nuggets?

It’s inconceivable to debate this collection with out contemplating what it may have been had been it not for the cruelty of damage. Steph Curry missed the ultimate 12 video games of the common season with a sprained left foot, and can seemingly be a game-time resolution for Game 1; how quickly and the way successfully he’ll play is the largest and least knowable query going into this collection. For the Nuggets, Jamal Murray hasn’t performed in any respect this season, whereas Michael Porter Jr. missed all however 9 video games with recurring again points. Neither has been dominated out for the playoffs, however there are not any robust indications that both will play.

Yet even with Curry’s standing unsure and the Nuggets lacking two key gamers, this collection will enable us to look at one of the best offensive participant in basketball work in opposition to one of many NBA’s greatest defenses. That battle is headlined by Nikola Jokić and Draymond Green — arguably one of the best offensive and defensive gamers, respectively, of their technology — however it’ll play out largely on the group stage. This could also be one of the best protection Jokić has ever confronted within the playoffs, and the efficacy of the Nuggets’ fluid pass-and-cut offense in opposition to the Warriors’ related, shape-shifting protection will seemingly determine who strikes on to the second spherical.

Denver’s offensive finish of the ground presents a few fascinating stylistic and statistical contrasts. In the common season, the Warriors allowed probably the most pictures within the NBA from 4 to 14 toes, whereas the Nuggets shot the fourth-highest share of any group from that vary. Jokić has lengthy been a grasp of these pictures, capturing 62 % on floaters this 12 months, and the Warriors had been keen to offer him that shot out of the pick-and-roll within the common season:

Against most bigs, conceding a floater is preferable to a layup or kickout 3, however Jokić hits these pictures with such accuracy as to alter that calculus. Do the Warriors carry their bigs greater up on the ground? Bring assist into the lane from the weak facet? The larger query, nonetheless, is how Golden State chooses to defend Jokić when he has the ball within the excessive and low submit. As one of many recreation’s greatest passers and scorers, Jokić will inflict ache in opposition to any sort of defensive protection, and the Nuggets continually transfer cutters and shooters into high-value areas of the ground. Play Jokić straight-up with a single defender, and he’ll get into his bag of spins, fakes and hooks or drop moon balls excessive of the protection; ship a second defender at him, and he’ll virtually at all times discover an open teammate (usually with out even trying). “Defending” him, then, is just a matter of mitigating the harm.

Many groups take the method of slowing down the famous person and “making the other guys beat you”, however that’s a more durable proposition to dwell with when forcing the ball out of Jokić’s palms usually simply quantities to letting him discover a wide-open teammate. During the common season (through which Green missed all 4 video games in opposition to the Nuggets), the Warriors appeared content material letting Jokić work one-on-one in opposition to Kevon Looney with out bringing a lot assist in the submit, and which may be one of the simplest ways for them to start out this collection. As unstoppable as Jokić is as a scorer, he’s even deadlier when he can exploit defensive gaps together with his passing, and sending extra defenders at him solely widens these gaps.

Green is the Warriors’ most dynamic heart and most suitable choice as a one-on-one defender of Jokić, and it is going to be a matter of when, not if, these two go head-to-head. Expect Steve Kerr to play that card judiciously, although. If the Warriors use their traditional beginning lineup, Looney — the largest physique in Golden State’s rotation — will get the primary crack at defending Jokić, permitting Green to roam as a assist defender whereas sparing him the bodily toll and foul hassle that comes with wrestling a balletic grizzly bear on the block.

No Warrior apart from Looney stood a lot of an opportunity in opposition to Jokić within the common season, so switching actions involving Jokić might be out of the query. The reigning MVP additionally mashes undersized opponents on the offensive glass, and whereas the Warriors are a superb defensive rebounding group with Green on the ground, they have to be hyper-vigilant about discovering and placing a physique on Jokić each time one in all his teammates shoots.

If Golden State can remotely comprise Jokić with only one defender, its assist defenders are good and related sufficient away from the ball to disclaim reducing layups and wide-open spot-up 3s. The Nuggets have sufficient offensive non-threats of their rotation that the Warriors’ savvy defenders ought to be capable of sink into the lane and discourage layups. If Jokić proves uncontainable with a single defender, Denver is brief sufficient on secondary scoring threats that forcing the ball out of his palms and daring different Nuggets to shoot stands out as the Warriors’ greatest technique.

The Nuggets shot simply 35.6 % on 3s this season — tied for seventeenth within the NBA — and have a number of gamers that the Warriors will actively go away open to plug holes elsewhere. Murray coming again would assist tilt Golden State’s protection away from Jokić, however in any other case that duty will fall totally on Will Barton and rookie Bones Hyland’s shoulders. Denver will want constant scoring from not less than a type of two, dependable secondary playmaking from Monte Morris and not less than some offensive punch from the backcourt ensemble of Austin Rivers, Bryn Forbes and Facundo Campazzo. (Yikes!)

On the opposite finish of the courtroom, the Warriors could not mercilessly assault Jokić in pick-and-roll like Chris Paul and the Suns did (particularly if Curry isn’t himself), however Golden State’s free-flowing movement offense may nonetheless exploit his lack of footspeed on the perimeter. Looney affords Jokić one thing of a hiding spot, however when the Warriors downsize with Green at heart, he’ll have a tough time maintaining with the entire handoffs and screening actions the Warriors will run him by.

Shooters like Curry, Thompson and Jordan Poole would require Denver’s huge males to get out on the ground and both contest pictures or entice the ball, which can give the Warriors alternatives to play four-on-three. That may additionally render DeMarcus Cousins unplayable, which might slide extra cell bigs like Jeff Green, JaMychal Green and Zeke Nnaji to backup heart. Poole additionally injects some downhill zip into the Warrior offense, and is perhaps the participant greatest outfitted to focus on Denver’s bigs within the pick-and-roll. Golden State will want his on-ball creation, particularly if Curry is proscribed or unavailable.

Another key bellwether on that finish of the courtroom shall be how usually the Warriors can get to the rim. Denver’s protection allowed the best subject objective share inside 4 toes of the basket this season, and Golden State shot the second-highest share from that vary — a product of frequent slips and cuts into the paint. But the Warriors didn’t generate a lot of these pictures, and whether or not they can discover extra avenues to simple layups could properly swing the collection.

Absent a completely wholesome Curry, the Nuggets rotate and recuperate properly sufficient to theoretically restrict Golden State’s best appears to be like, and have a robust, agile on-ball defender in Aaron Gordon to throw at Curry. Denver was additionally the NBA’s greatest defensive rebounding group this 12 months, and will restrict Golden State’s second probabilities all through the collection.

Even if Curry is by some means at full energy, the Nuggets most likely have one of the best participant on this collection — and thus, a combating likelihood. Golden State, nonetheless, has extra scoring choices, a greater protection and fewer weak hyperlinks on each ends of the ground. If Curry misses greater than two video games, the collection may flip Denver’s manner. Otherwise, the Nuggets could also be too depleted to hold with a wholesome Warriors squad.

My choose: Warriors in 6

Sixers vs. Raptors: Who controls the tempo?

There will not be a group within the Eastern Conference with extra stress to win within the first spherical than the Sixers, and no group with much less to lose than the Raptors. Toronto obtained right here by exceeding expectations, alchemizing right into a defensive hydra that overwhelms opponents with size, exercise and all-out effort. Philadelphia, in the meantime, has an MVP candidate in his prime, an ageing second star and an urgency to maximise no matter time these two have collectively. The Sixers have one of the best participant within the collection by a large margin — and doubtlessly the 2 greatest gamers — however the Raptors’ frenetic type provides them a couple of distinct benefits that would assist them overcome that top-end expertise disparity.

Perhaps the defining query of this collection shall be how the Sixers negotiate the Raptors’ athleticism and exercise on each ends, and whether or not they can gradual the sport right down to their most popular tempo. Only the Memphis Grizzlies created extra offense in transition than Toronto this season, and whereas these alternatives are sometimes more durable to come back by within the playoffs, the Sixers had one of many worst transition defenses within the league and will lack the requisite pace and stamina to maintain up with the Raptors within the open ground (particularly with Matisse Thybulle not absolutely vaccinated and unavailable for video games in Toronto). A quick-paced collection closely favors the Raptors, who’ve struggled in previous playoff collection to generate offense within the halfcourt and might extra successfully impose their athleticism within the open courtroom.

That lack of quickness may additionally harm the 76ers on the defensive glass, the place they had been merely a mean defensive rebounding group this season. By distinction, Toronto grabbed the second-most offensive rebounds of any group within the NBA, and the Raptors assault the offensive boards not by banging beneath the rim, however hovering in from the perimeter earlier than opponents can field them out. They’re virtually at all times faster to free balls than their opponents, and will handle to create second shot alternatives all through this collection. (Embiid may additionally punish the Raptors’ lack of measurement on Philly’s offensive glass.)

Toronto additionally compelled their opponents into extra turnovers this season than another protection, and whereas the Sixers are typically a turnover-averse group (partly due to how a lot Embiid and Harden prefer to isolate), coping with the Raptors’ size and aggression poses a special problem than a typical regular-season recreation.

Of course, Embiid additionally poses a problem Toronto isn’t accustomed to dealing with, although the Raptors have schemed in opposition to him in addition to any group within the NBA since Nick Nurse grew to become the top coach. Toronto is great at rotating on the fly and overlaying all the courtroom, which makes anticipating assist protection tough. No matter who Embiid’s major defender is (there shall be a number of), the Raptors will attempt to swarm his post-ups, pressure the ball out of his palms and recuperate to shooters or bounce his passing lanes. Embiid will get his share of factors from the free-throw line, however Toronto’s defenders are extra disciplined than most, and Nurse will get artistic within the sorts of coverages he throws at Embiid.

Help will come from each route, and the Sixers can have slender home windows to assault a scrambling protection. It’s right here they could possibly be harm not solely by their lack of bodily quickness, however their gradual decision-making as properly. As good as Harden and Embiid are at studying defenses with the ball of their palms, neither is a superb ball-mover, and Philadelphia lacks an offensive connector who can hold possessions shifting with fast choices. The Raptors allowed extra nook 3s than any group within the NBA this season, and people pictures shall be obtainable as long as Embiid’s teammates are decisive when he will get off the ball, attacking earlier than Toronto’s protection can recuperate slightly than stalling out possessions.

The different key variable on this collection would be the play of James Harden, who has seemed slower off the dribble and struggled to place collectively constant stretches of dominance as a Sixer. If he’s the second-best participant within the collection (and even one of the best participant), Philadelphia may need an insurmountable top-end expertise edge. But given his current struggles and the Raptors’ arsenal of bodily wing defenders, Toronto may pose a tough drawback for Harden to unravel.

There’s no clear weak hyperlink in Nurse’s quick rotation for Harden to single out in isolation, no lead-footed huge man to torch on switches, and the Raptors shall be comfy switching screens to forestall Harden from getting downhill within the pick-and-roll. Harden solely took 24 pictures in two video games in opposition to Toronto as a Sixer, and infrequently struggled to separate from the Raptors’ rangy facilities on switches:

If Harden can’t constantly beat defenders off the dribble, it’ll foist a large quantity of the scoring and playmaking burden onto Embiid and Tyrese Maxey’s shoulders. While Embiid has taken enormous strides as a passer this season, Harden remains to be the group’s greatest playmaker, and if that supply of offense dries up (not less than partially) it’s arduous to see the place the Sixers discover dependable offense outdoors of Embiid and Maxey.

Toronto has extra methods to assault on offense, although none are as efficient as merely tossing the ball to a famous person and letting him go to work. Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a dynamic scorer within the second half of the season presents some hope that the Raptors can keep away from the sorts of droughts which have plagued them prior to now, whereas Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have emerged as extra dependable shot creators off the bounce.

Still, grinding out baskets within the halfcourt could possibly be tough for the Raptors, particularly with Embiid ready to discourage pictures on the rim. We’ll seemingly see Siakam and VanVleet go at Harden in isolation, and small lineups with Siakam or Scottie Barnes at heart may create extra space to assault by pulling Embiid away from the basket. Embiid will seemingly dare them to shoot, and the way a lot these small-ball facilities could make Embiid pay for serving to off of them could possibly be one other pivotal battleground within the collection.

Perhaps Maxey solidifies his leap this season with a breakout collection, or function gamers like Thybulle, Harris, Green and Furkan Korkmaz make sufficient pictures to punish the Raptors for overcommitting to Embiid. Or: Embiid could be adequate that nothing else issues. It feels barely extra seemingly, nonetheless, that the Raptors coax Embiid into simply sufficient missed pictures and turnovers that Philly’s collective lack of pace, Thybulle’s unavailability, the absence of a dependable backup heart and Harden’s incapacity to put on down robust perimeter defenders go away the Sixers on the dropping finish of an in depth collection.

My choose: Raptors in 7

Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

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