Klay Thompson was splashing 3-pointers. Draymond Green was making stops and deftly finding open cutters. Stephen Curry drew several defenders any time he touched the ball.
The threesome who redefined basketball en route to winning multiple championships with the Golden State Warriors reunited in the playoffs on Saturday for the first time since 2019. And like in many games of that era, the high-octane Warriors were dominant, defeating the Denver Nuggets in the opener of their first-round playoff matchup, 123-107.
In a surprise move, Curry began the game on the bench. In his place, Coach Steve Kerr started the third-year guard Jordan Poole, who made a leap this year. The move appeared to be aimed at keeping Curry on a strict minutes limit. This was his first game since March 16, when he injured his left foot against the Boston Celtics.
The swap paid off. Poole was exceptional in his first career playoff game, scoring 30 points — a game high — on 9 for 13 shooting, electrifying the Chase Center crowd in San Francisco. He played as if he had long been a mainstay of postseason basketball. At one point, he did a dance after scoring a difficult basket. It was that kind of night. On 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 of the 2019 draft who stole the show as Golden State attempted to recapture the N.B.A. throne.
“Jordan Poole, wow, what a playoff debut,” Thompson raved to 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 incredible. I mean, what a star in the making.”
The last time Curry came off the bench during the playoffs was May 1, 2018, the second game of the Western Conference semifinals against the New Orleans Pelicans, when he was returning from a knee injury. Saturday against Denver was only the third playoff game of Curry’s career in which he played but didn’t 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 sneaking 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 drew outsize attention from the Nuggets, and the Warriors outscored Denver by 17 points with Curry on the floor.
“It was nice to feel the playoff vibe again, and obviously it is 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 good kind — for Kerr going forward. With Curry back, can he send Poole to the bench for the rest of the playoffs?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Kerr said.
Poole’s strong play will give Kerr more options for the rest of the series. For one thing, he can deploy a three-guard lineup of Curry, Thompson and Poole — three playmakers and shooters. It’s reminiscent of the closing small-ball lineups that the Warriors used to deploy at their best during their championship runs of the last decade — except with Poole playing the part of Andre Iguodala, who now has a smaller role.
An added benefit of Poole’s emergence is that it allows Golden State to ease Curry’s ramp up coming off the foot injury. Kerr declined to say whether 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 during the 2019 N.B.A. finals. He moved swiftly to find open looks for himself, en route to five 3-pointers and 19 points overall.
“Before the tip I thought about all the days in the gym, the days in a doctor’s office, on the surgery table and then just to be flying up and down the court, knocking shots down 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 was able to flummox the Nuggets’ top star, Nikola Jokic, who is the favorite to win his second Most Valuable Player Award. The Warriors constantly forced Jokic into difficult shots and frustrated him with a steady stream of double teams. They also attempted to tire him out defensively by setting up possessions with him as the primary defender. On possession after possession, Jokic was sent scurrying after the speedy Golden State ballhandlers.
“They were just better than us in every aspect of the game,” Jokic said.
But the Warriors also have Green, who won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2016-17. He was able to do something most defenders can’t: guard Jokic one on one for multiple possessions, freeing his Golden State teammates to stay attached to other Nuggets players Jokic might pass to.
By the time the fourth quarter came around, Jokic looked exhausted. He finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists. He went to the free throw line two times, despite attempting 25 shots. Denver appeared to be frustrated with the officiating.
“I think there were some times where, you know, his jersey was getting pulled out a lot,” Nuggets Coach Mike Malone said. “So I don’t know. We got to see how they’re guarding him and how we can make them pay for how they’re guarding him.”
When Jokic was asked about the officiating after the game by a reporter, he said, “My friend, I think I’m going to get fined if I answer.”
The playoff opener was a return to the postseason spotlight for the core Golden State players who won championships in 2015, 2017 and 2018. Curry, Green, Thompson and Iguodala are the top four leaders in franchise history for postseason games played. But this was the first time, in large part because of injuries, that 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 of them 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 that game briefly, to support Thompson, before sitting 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 missed most or all of the season; they often can take the pressure off Jokic for playmaking.
This was Denver’s fourth straight year making the playoffs; the team has made it out of the first round each of the past three seasons.
There is a source of solace for Denver: In each of those series, the Nuggets lost the first game. The Nuggets will attempt to tie the seven-game series at one game apiece on Monday. But they looked overmatched on Saturday night.
“We can’t beat ourselves and the Warriors in the same game,” Malone said. “We did that tonight.”