It's been an exciting NBA regular season for a lot of reasons, including the Miami Heat's 27-game winning streak and the epic battle between Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant for the scoring title. But don't overlook the Denver Nuggets, who had one of the best season's in franchise history. The team exploded following the All-Star break, and last night, they locked up the three seed -- meaning they will face the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Who has the edge? We've broken it down into five categories to determine who will come out on top. 5. Defense
What's the old saying? Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. Clichés are obnoxious, but they exist for a reason. The last three NBA champions -- the Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers -- didn't capture titles by running people out of the building.
Before the All-Star break, the Nuggets were allowing 102.6 points per 100 possessions, thirteenth in the league per NBA.com. Their front line blocked a decent amount of shots, but the bigs routinely got lost on pick-and-roll coverage, either failing to hedge on screens hard enough to knock the ball-handler off course or dropping too far off and allowing high percentage jump shots. Golden State gave up 103.4 per 100 possessions, good for seventeenth in the league.
Post All-Star break, both teams became much stingier. Both Denver and Golden State cut down their point allowances, to 100.7 and 101.4 per 100 possessions, respectively -- sixth and seventh in the league. But Denver that has shown the most consistency. Golden State lacks any real shot blockers except when Andrew Bogut is healthy, but beyond Bogut, the front line is thin. David Lee is known around the league for his lack of defense, and although Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have improved defensively this year, Golden State has still been forced to operate on a "pack the paint" principle, forcing everything to the middle. Denver, on the other hand, has a real lockdown defender in Andre Iguodala and legitimate shot blocking in JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos. If Denver can limit Golden State's spot-up opportunities and contain Curry on the pick and roll, this series should be over in five games. Edge: Denver Nuggets
Offense is the calling card of both teams. Golden State averages a little more than 101 points per game, and the Nuggets come in at slightly over 106.
Will those numbers surely dip once the series begins? Traditionally, the playoffs are when the tempo slows and teams are forced to execute in the half court. That may be true in the other series this year, with teams like San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Lakers making appearances, but rest assured, offensive tempo is not something that will be missing from this Nuggets-Warriors series.
That both teams score the majority of their points off transition and spot-up shooting should come as no surprise to anyone. Denver has been extremely efficient in the open court, scoring on 58 percent of those opportunities and shooting nearly 63 percent (obviously, lay-ups are high percentage shots), per SynergySports. The Warriors have been less efficient in transition, but because they have above-average shooters in Curry, Thompson and Lee, their spot-up shooting percentages blow Denver's out of the water. Golden State scores on nearly 43 percent of those opportunities, and they shoot equally well from two- and three-point territory, per SynergySports.
Losing Danilo Gallinari to injury has hurt, but Wilson Chandler has stepped right in and picked up the offensive slack, along with increased output from Iguodala. Golden State essentially relies on three players for its offense, but in any given game, a different Nugget can put up twenty-plus points; there is no way to key in on a single player. Clearly, slowing down Ty Lawson is important, but with the plethora of offensive options available to the Nuggets, it will be difficult for the Warriors to do anything other than hope Denver players miss jump shots. Edge: Denver Nuggets
Bench play has been one of the main strengths for the Nuggets throughout this entire season. True, rotations typically shorten come playoff time, but that shouldn't faze these guys at all.
Let's compare: Denver's got Andre Miller, Corey Brewer, JaVale McGee and Anthony Randolph coming off the bench. Golden State has Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack and Festus Ezeli.
Which would you rather have? It's not even close. Edge: Denver Nuggets
Neither of these coaches has ever won a championship, so by that metric alone, this could be considered a wash. Mark Jackson has done an admirable job taking a team known for its dearth of defense and turning them into one that could be called average. Jackson had a great career as a player, and he certainly appeared in his fair share of playoff games.
But let's get real: George Karl has helmed some great teams in his day: the 1996 Seattle SuperSonics, the 2001 Milwaukee Bucks and the 2008 Nuggets among them. True, none of these teams reached the ultimate promised land of championship glory, but clearly Karl knows how to get the job done. No disrespect to Jackson, who has probably surpassed expectations this season, but there is a difference between playing a lot of playoff games and coaching a lot of playoff games. Edge: Denver Nuggets
Not only do the Nuggets have home court advantage for this series; they just wrapped up a season in which they had the best home record in the league, 38-3.
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The Golden State home crowd has been known to show up, like in 2007 when the eighth-seeded Warriors beat the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks. But is there anyone in the entire league who isn't at least a little nervous about meeting the Nuggets on their home floor? Didn't think so. Edge: Denver Nuggets
Denver has the edge in every category, and in all honesty, this series really should not be close. The Warriors have had a great season, making the playoffs for the first time in years, but Denver has been on fire this year, and they show no signs of slowing down in the playoffs.
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