Klay Thompson splashed 3 points. Draymond Green was making saves and skillfully finding open cutters. Stephen Curry drew multiple defenders every time he touched the ball.
The trio that redefined basketball on their way to winning multiple championships with the Golden State Warriors reunited in the playoffs Saturday for the first time since 2019. octane were dominant, beating the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of their first-round playoff game, 123-107.
In a surprise move, Curry started the game on the bench. In his place, coach Steve Kerr launched third-year guard Jordan Poole, who has surged this year. The move appeared to be aimed at keeping Curry within a strict minute limit. It was his first game since March 16, when he injured his left foot against the Boston Celtics.
The exchange paid off. Poole was exceptional in his first career playoff game, scoring a game-high 30 points on 9-for-13 shooting, electrifying the crowd at Chase Center in San Francisco. He played like he had long been a mainstay in post-season basketball. At one point, he did a dance after scoring a difficult field goal. It was that kind of night. In a team of stars who had played on some of the most talented teams in league history, it was a 22-year-old selected with the 28th pick in the 2019 draft who stole the show as Golden State tried to take back the NBA throne.
“Jordan Poole, wow, what a start to the playoffs,” Thompson told reporters after the game, adding, “We should be very grateful for Jordan’s development and the type of player he’s become because he’s just amazing. I mean, what a star in the making.
The last time Curry came off the bench during the playoffs was May 1, 2018, Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the New Orleans Pelicans, as he returned from a knee injury. Saturday against Denver was only the third playoff game of Curry’s career in which he played but did not start.
He entered the contest about halfway through the first quarter to a loud ovation. Almost immediately, Curry made his presence felt, finding Thompson for an open 3-pointer from the corner and weaving a pass between two defenders to an open green for a dunk. Otherwise, he struggled, shooting 5 for 13 from the field for 16 points. But his presence alone still caught the Nuggets’ attention, and the Warriors edged Denver by 17 points with Curry on the floor.
“It was nice to feel the playoff vibe again, and obviously it’s different coming off the bench and trying to make the most of the minutes that are appropriate right now,” Curry said.
Poole’s strong play presents a dilemma – of the right kind – for Kerr going forward. With Curry back, can he bench Poole for the remainder of the playoffs?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Kerr said.
Poole’s solid play will give Kerr more options for the rest of the series. For one thing, he can deploy a three-guard formation made up of Curry, Thompson and Poole – three point guards and shooters. It’s reminiscent of the small-ball closing lineups the Warriors used to field at their best in their league runs of the past decade – except with Poole playing Andre Iguodala, who now has a smaller role .
An added benefit of Poole’s emergence is that it allows Golden State to facilitate Curry’s rise to prominence after a foot injury. Kerr declined to say if Curry would come off the bench again for Game 2 on Monday.
Thompson, meanwhile, looked like the player he was before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the 2019 NBA Finals. He moved quickly to find open looks for himself, en route to five 3-pointers and 19 points overall.
“Before the tip, I was thinking about all the days in the gym, the days in a doctor’s office, on the operating table, and then just flying around the field, knocking down shots and playing solid defense, it was a surreal moment for me,” Thompson said after the game.
Denver, on the other hand, will have to go back to the drawing board.
Golden State managed to baffle the Nuggets’ top star, Nikola Jokic, who is the favorite to win their second Most Valuable Player award. The Warriors constantly forced Jokic into hard shots and frustrated him with a constant stream of double teams. They also tried to tire him out defensively by setting up possessions with him as the main defender. On possession after possession, Jokic was sent rushing past Golden State’s fast ball handlers.
“They were just better than us in every aspect of the game,” Jokic said.
But the Warriors also have Green, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17. He was able to do something most defenders can’t: keep Jokic one-on-one for multiple possessions, freeing up his Golden State teammates to stick with other Nuggets players Jokic could switch to.
By the time of the fourth quarter, Jokic looked exhausted. He finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. He made it to the free throw line twice, despite attempting 25 shots. Denver seemed frustrated with the refereeing.
“I think there were times when, you know, his jersey got taken off a lot,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. ” Then I do not know. We need to see how they keep it and how we can make them pay for how they keep it.”
When Jokic was asked about the refereeing after the match by a journalist, he replied: “My friend, I think I will be fined if I answer.”
The playoff opener was a return to the playoff spotlight for Golden State’s key players who won championships in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Curry, Green, Thompson and Iguodala are the first four leaders in the franchise history for post-season games played. But it was the first time, largely due to injury, the Warriors had made the playoffs since 2019, when the team lost in the Finals to the Toronto Raptors in six games. The only time all four have played in the same game this year was on Jan. 9, Thompson’s first game back after missing two seasons with leg injuries. Green only started this match briefly, to support Thompson, before sitting out the rest of the night.
Both teams had significant injury issues during the season. Green missed more than two months of the regular season for Golden State with a back injury. For Denver, Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray have missed most or all of the season; they can often relieve Jokic’s pressure for the game.
It was Denver’s fourth straight year in the playoffs; the team has made it through the first round each of the past three seasons.
There’s one source of solace for Denver: In each of those series, the Nuggets have lost Game 1. The Nuggets will try to tie the seven-game series to one game apiece on Monday. But they looked overwhelmed Saturday night.
“We can’t fight and beat the Warriors in the same game,” Malone said. “We did it tonight.”