Just three seasons ago, the Denver Nuggets seemed to be the team on the rise in the West, looking to slide into the position the Los Angeles Lakers had so long held.
But after a demoralizing upset at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, the two franchises have taken violent shoves in opposite directions.
When the Nuggets (2-3) and Warriors (5-0) tip at Oracle Arena Friday night, Denver will look to hand the reigning champs their first loss since Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals. Under newly hired head coach and former Warriors assistant Michael Malone, the Nuggets have gone to a more high-paced offense – much like the one run in Oakland during Malone’s stay from 2011 to 2013.
Warriors Forward Harrison Barnes believes trying to out-pace Golden State will not play to the Nuggets’ advantage:
“Being up tempo, that’s what we pride on ourselves on. I think we run just as well as anybody else.”
Barnes added that, in the second year playing in their current system, the Dubs have seen improvement in the half-court game as well. Especially when All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are forced off the court, like Curry was Wednesday after collecting two early fouls:
“With so many different lineups, we can get so many different things out of (the offense). When Steph and Klay leave the game, we can still get guys good shots… (The offense) is a lot more fluid.”
Fluidity is not necessarily the strength of a Nuggets team currently averaging 12.4 offensive rebounds per game (T-4th in the league), largely thanks to a team shooting percentage of 41.4 percent (T-21st).
Leading the way in Denver’s ability to wrangle their own misses is forward Kenneth Faried, whose 3.4 such boards per game is good enough to tie him for the eighth in the league.
In Barnes’ mind, the scrappy nature of his team is such that they can use Denver’s affinity to the staying the lane for rebounds against them:
“Those guys crash the offensive rebound hard so we have to be active, keep those guys off the board early, and when we get (the ball) just run. If they’re going to crash the offensive rebounds that means there’s no one back, so (we need to) get out and push.”
Along with team rebounding, Barnes said a key to success against a Nuggets team in search of its first playoff berth since 2013 is keeping forward Danilo Gallinari from heating up.
The team’s most prolific scorer, Gallinari is shooting below 40 percent from the field (33 percent from 3). He does, however, have the ability to get dangerously hot, especially at the onset of a game, something Barnes addressed at a Friday morning practice session:
“He’s one of those guys where he’s a little mismatch issue. He plays a lot of (power forward). He can shoot the ball extremely well. And he’s one of those guys, once he gets one or two going, it can be a long night. So (we’ve got to) try to make him put (the ball) on the ground and make him make plays from there.”
Along with Gallinari and Faried, Barnes pointed to rookie guard Emmanuel Mudiay as potential match-up issue. The 6-foot-5, 19-year-old point guard, averaging 11.6 points per game, is as Barnes put it, “really good on the ball screen.” Though he joked the Warriors have gotten to see that style of play close-up from former NBA standout Steve Nash, who himself is “pretty good” at that.
The Warriors, among the league’s leaders in nearly every measure, look to continue a start that has seen them go 5-0 against four playoff teams. And after their first tightly-contested matchup just two days ago, they can take solace in the knowledge that interim head coach Luke Walton was cool and decisive in his first test in the position.