What to expect from Warriors-Nuggets series … and Curry’s ailing foot

Gone are the days when the Warriors feel destined for a deep playoff run.

Though they have enough to be in the championship conversation, they need things to go right — not just to make the Finals, but to reach the second round. Third-seeded Golden State’s first-round opponent, the sixth-seeded Nuggets, boast an edge in the season series, a clear size advantage, one of the NBA’s savviest coaches and the reigning MVP.

Here is what you need to know about the best-of-seven series, which begins Saturday evening at Chase Center:

Three story lines

• When will Stephen Curry be available, and how healthy will he look?

Make no mistake: The Warriors won’t compete for a title — and might not escape the first round — if Curry isn’t at or close to 100%. And with Game 1 of the first round on Saturday, his health remains a major question mark.

Asked Sunday about Curry, head coach Steve Kerr saidThere’s a chance he could be ready for Game 1; there’s a chance he might not.” Even if Curry is cleared to play in the opener, the Warriors have no guarantee he’ll be back to his dynamic ways.

The organization has offered few details about the sprained ligament in his right foot; it expects to provide an update Tuesday, a day later than initially planned. Though Curry has begun light on-court work, he must progress to full-court scrimmaging before he can be cleared for the playoffs.

Who: Denver (48-34)

at Warriors (53-29)

What: Western Conference quarterfinals, Game 1

When: 5:30 p.m.

TV/Radio:Channel: 7Channel: 10/95.7

This is a tricky balancing act. The Warriors don’t want to risk rushing Curry back, but they know time is running out. Golden State has outscored opponents by 12.1 more points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor than with him on the bench — the ninth-biggest difference among NBA players who logged at least 1,000 minutes this season.

It should help the Warriors that the Nuggets also are dealing with roster uncertainty. Denver head coach Michael Malone has left open the possibility of Jamal Murray (ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back) returning, though an appearance by either seems far less likely than Curry coming back.

• How will the undersized Warriors contain Nikola Jokic?

To get past the Nuggets, Golden State must make life difficult on Jokic. That’s no easy task considering that Jokic, a candidate for his second straight MVP award, boasts the NBA’s best real plus-minusa stat measuring a player’s average impact on his team by points per 100 possessions.

In going 3-1 against the Warriors this season, Denver outscored Golden State by 22.6 more points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor than with him on the sideline. It’s important to note, however, that Draymond Green was not available for any of those four meetings.

Green has been as good as perhaps anyone in the league at forcing Jokic out of his comfort zone. On numerous occasions, the 6-foot-11 center has tried to post up Green, listed at 6-6, only to settle for ill-advised jumpers.

Kevon Looney, the other Warriors player who figures to see time on Jokic, has also had success against the Serbian big man. Bigger and more physical than Green, Looney must prove that he can be effective with Jokic along the perimeter. That was an issue for Looney at times this season.

• How will the supporting cast adjust to the Warriors’ “Big Three?”

Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole, right, celebrates with guard Stephen Curry after hitting a 3-point basket during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Denver.  (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole, right, celebrates with guard Stephen Curry after hitting a 3-point basket during the second half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, March 10, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

One of the Warriors’ most illuminating quotes this season came two weeks ago from forward Andre Iguodala.

“We’re going to have to use the playoffs to get better,” he said. “It’s just the situation.” All teams want to be at their best in the postseason, but the Warriors have more to figure out than some of their counterparts.

Curry, Green and Klay Thompson have played just 11 minutes together this season. Though those three shouldn’t need long to get comfortable with one another, the supporting cast might require some time. Outside of Iguodala, Looney, Green, Curry and Damion Lee, Thompson hadn’t played with any of his current teammates before mid-January.

Newcomers such as Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II must learn on the fly how Green, Curry and Thompson move off each other. This will be trickier if Curry isn’t at full strength.


Stopping Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15), the reigning MVP, will be the task of Kevon Looney and other Warriors big men.

Stopping Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15), the reigning MVP, will be the task of Kevon Looney and other Warriors big men.

Carlos Avila González / The Chronicle

Key matchup: Smaller defenders against Jokic.

Green and Looney will get the bulk of the time on Jokic, but one underrated facet of this series is how other defenders handle Jokic on switches. The Nuggets excelled this season at forcing an off-ball switch, allowing Jokic to exploit his size advantage against the likes of Payton, Poole, Lee or Juan Toscano-Anderson.

When the Nuggets try to find Jokic a preferred matchup early in the shot clock, the Warriors must be more aware of spacing and angles. As soon as a Denver player tries to force an undersized defender onto Jokic, that defender and Green or Looney — whoever is on the floor — should switch back as quickly as possible.

It helps the Warriors that Denver’s offense is relatively slow-paced, often affording enough time for such an adjustment. That is, if both Golden State players are alert and communicating.

X-factor for Warriors: Perimeter defense.

Jokic, like Curry, is an asset simply by being on the floor. Whenever Jokic is in the game, the opponent must pay him extra attention. Those double- and even triple-teams free up plenty of room for his teammates to knock down shots along the perimeter.

Though the Warriors will try to limit the number of times they send extra defenders toward Jokic, they must be mindful about whom they’re leaving open beyond the arc. At the top of the list is Monte Morris, who hit a game-winner against Golden State this season. With a 39.5% 3-point clip on 4.2 attempts per game, he is the Nuggets’ best marksman.

Bones Hyland and Will Barton are streakier than Morris, but they still shoot well enough from deep to be feared from. When the Warriors must send double-teams at Jokic, they should be somewhat comfortable leaving Austin Rivers (34.2% from 3-point range), Aaron Gordon (33.5%), Jeff Green (31.5%) and JaMychal Green (26.6%) open .

X-factor for Nuggets: Limiting Jordan Poole.

Poole’s speed and ballhandling have given Denver problems all season. In his three games against the Nuggets, he averaged 22.7 points on 58.1% shooting (60.9% from 3-point range).

During the Warriors’ March 10 game in Denver, the Nuggets twice doubled Curry in crunch time, leaving Poole wide open for 3-pointers that sealed the win. Given that Kerr hopes to lean heavily on the Curry-Thompson-Poole lineup in this series, Denver must be aware of where Poole is on the floor.

Rivers and Morris likely will take turns on Poole, which might feel like a reprieve from guarding Curry. But regardless of whether Curry is fully healthy, Poole has shown that he can dominate.

Status to know:

That’s the Warriors’ winning percentage without Curry since he entered the league in 2009 — a far cry from their winning percentage of .660 with him. This season, Golden State was 45-19 with Curry and 8-10 without him.

Prediction: Warriors in six games.

Curry’s health adds a measure of intrigue to this series. But even if he isn’t 100%, the Warriors’ superior depth and talent should be enough to get past the Nuggets.

Connor Letourneau is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

Leave a Comment