After watching Golden State bombard the Nuggets in Denver last night, it's difficult not to think reflect a bit on playoff seeding. In a season in which the Clippers, Nuggets and Grizzlies each set franchise records for victories while still trailing the mighty Thunder and Spurs, there wasn't room for all of them to have home court advantage in the first round. By the slimmest of margins, the Grizzlies had to play the first round on the road, the Clippers had to face a 56 win team in the first round, and the Nuggets got the reward of facing the presumably weaker Warriors. With four one point victories in the final month of the season, victories that turned on last second shots, a foul on a three pointer at the buzzer, and a disallowed game winner by their opponent, the margin by which the Nuggets won the third seed was micrometer thin.
And yet it's the Nuggets who have lost home court advantage and only barely escaped an 0-2 start to the playoffs.
Obviously it's early yet. Everyone knows the Warriors are a dangerous team when they are making shots, but they are also a mediocre team when those shots aren't falling. So the fact that Golden State won a game in Denver, while surprising in the light of Denver's 24 game home-winning streak, probably shouldn't be all that surprising. When the Warriors are on they can beat any team in any building -- but the conventional wisdom is that they will not be 'on' for four games out of seven.
In some ways, the Nuggets should probably be more frightened by the Game 1 results than Game 2. Because as it happens, the Warriors weren't particularly dialed in for Game 1 -- the Dubs only made 41% from the field and Stephen Curry scored just 19 points on 20 shots -- and yet Golden State had the lead and the ball with less than a minute to go. Even with the injury to David Lee (which might help the Warriors in a weird way, but more on that in a bit), if you've watched the first two games in this series, the inescapable conclusion is that the Warriors have been the better team so far. It can change in an instant of course -- but as of now, Denver is in trouble.
Meanwhile, the Clippers are up 2-0 on the vaunted Grizzlies, and while it took a buzzer-beater of their own in Game 2 to secure that victory, the simple fact is that the Clippers have yet to trail in the fourth quarter of the series. Take into consideration that the Clippers were 3-1 against Memphis in the regular season and 1-3 against Golden State, and the eventual first round pairings look fortuitous indeed.
Of course, eventually there will be the second round to consider, and anyone would want to avoid Oklahoma City as long as possible -- but that's getting ahead of ourselves. As of this moment, in the here and now, Memphis isn't such a terrible draw after all.
It's worth noting that the Nuggets are now 39-3 (including their Game 1 win) in games where their opponent has just arrived in the Rockies -- and 0-1 in games played after a couple days in the mile high air. It's no secret that a large part of the Nuggets home court dominance is due to the fact that their arena is about 5,400 feet above sea level. During the course of an 82 game regular season, opponents fly into Denver, play one game at altitude, and then fly out, and the Nuggets have built their team to take full advantage of their environment, playing at the second fastest pace in the league. So it's no accident that Denver has by far the biggest discrepancy between home winning percentage (.927) and road winning percentage (.463) in the league. By overall record, the Nuggets are an elite team -- but their road record is the same as Golden State's. The high altitude makes a huge difference, but that advantage is far less significant in the postseason, where opponents have more time to acclimate and both teams are on the same travel schedule. So maybe the fact that Denver is struggling says as much about the Nuggets as it does about the Warriors.
As for Lee, the Warriors are not a very deep team and so his loss will be felt. But the fact that Mark Jackson has been forced to go to a three guard lineup, inserting Jarrett Jack into the starting lineup, is a blessing in disguise. If the Warriors win it will be one way -- spreading the floor and shooting jumpers. They're not going to beat the Nuggets playing with a traditional front line, so the Jack lineup is actually much better for them than the one featuring Bogut and Lee together that started in Game 1. Jack allows them to run Curry off of screens and puts an additional shooter and penetrator on the floor. And it's not as if they're losing anything on the defensive end without Lee. They might prefer to have Lee and Carl Landry as the bigs they platoon, as they did for most of the regular season while Andrew Bogut was hurt, but Bogut provides more defense and is a good passer, making the Lee-less Warriors as good as or better than the team that went 19-6 prior to the New Year.
While we're on the subject of Nuggets-Warriors, has anyone else had the feeling while watching that series that those teams are playing a different game than the Grizzlies? I'm not saying a different style -- obviously the style is different -- but it really feels like a different game, with a completely different set of rules. Where are the flying arm bars? Where are the head locks? It's almost as if the players in that series know that those things are not actually allowed, according to the NBA rule book. It's really quite nice to get to watch ten players playing basketball, I must say.
We're only two games into the playoffs. The Warriors could fall apart at any minute. The Grizzlies could find their mojo when they return home to Memphis and beat the snot out of the Clippers. Or more precisely, they could beat the snot out of the Clippers AND win games at the same time. But two games in, the Nuggets have their hands full with the sixth-seeded Warriors while the Clippers have a solid lead over the fifth-seeded Grizzlies and it's looking like, for this round at least, the Clippers may have gotten the more favorable draw.