SAN FRANCISCO — First impressions matter, and, my goodness, the first impression the Warriors made this postseason was powerful.
Remember the effort we spent trying to come up with a nickname for the small-ball, three-guard lineup the Warriors debuted in Game 1 vs. the Denver Nuggets?
Would it be a pun on Jordan Poole’s name after he played like an All-Star to start the series?
No, perhaps it would be a play on the old “Death Lineup” from the Warriors’ first title in 2015.
Something new altogether?
By the time the series ended, with the Warriors dropping only one game but engaged in three slug-it-out contests with the Nuggets, the notion of a lineup nickname felt childish.
Playoff basketball is tough and physical. And while any win in that environment is worth celebrating, after the series-clinching win Wednesday night in Game 5, it sure seemed as if the Warriors’ main emotion wasn’t joy, but relief.
What a change in tone from that first impression.
“To be honest, for three quarters, our main guys — Steph, Draymond, Klay — maybe they had forgotten a little bit about how difficult it is to close out a series,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
Curry acknowledged it “was just a weird feeling because we had not been there in a while. Again, we wanted it so bad. Kind of made it a lot more difficult on ourselves.”
Indeed, the Warriors showed their best and their worst in their first-round win over the Nuggets.
And looking forward to the second round (and, the Warriors hope, beyond) it’s hard to imagine what happens next for Golden State.
If it was merely rust in the way of the Warriors eliminating the Nuggets in an expedient and ruthless manner, then the Warriors could well go back to looking like the world-beaters we saw in the first two games of the postseason.
But they might just be another team in these parity-defined playoffs, albeit with some serious and enviable experience among their stars.
The Warriors were a little bit of both against Denver, and it turned out fine. Maybe that dichotomy will be good enough in the second round, too: Memphis and Minnesota are both young teams whose first-round series shows how little they know about playoff basketball.
But at some point, the Warriors’ penchant for fouling and capriciousness with the basketball—which we saw throughout the regular season and again in the final three games of the Denver series—will catch up to them.
And it’s frustrating because we just saw the Warriors be so much more.
No player is immune from scrutiny and it takes a full team to win playoff games, but the Warriors’ ceiling as a team is set not by Curry, Thompson or Green, but rather by Poole, the 22-year-old guard in his third year in the league and first year as someone with staying power.
Poole was spectacular in the first three games of this series, a driving force in two blowout wins and a fourth-quarter closeout in Game 3.
In Game 4, the Nuggets threw size at him and he struggled.
More size came in Game 5 and Poole finished with eight points and five fouls — spending the critical moments of the game on the bench.
In future rounds, the Warriors simply will not be able to afford a mercurial Poole. His offensive output doesn’t need to be Jordanesque, Just the same, it can’t be like Kerr’s in his playing days either.
With Poole playing like (arguably) the NBA’s most improved player, the Warriors are perhaps the team to beat in the Western Conference.
With him looking like a guy who can’t counter playoff tactics, the Warriors are a lesser team.
Now, that team might be good enough to compete for a title, but the journey to June would be exhausting under those circumstances.
The good news for the Warriors is that they now have at least a few days to rest and prepare for their next opponent.
And remember: Because of injuries, this is a team that has little cohesion outside the core three players, who last played serious basketball together three seasons ago.
This first-round series was an opportunity for the Warriors to learn about themselves and to shake off some rust in the process.
But now the Warriors are in the thick of things. The second round is serious business. It tests a team’s identity, which makes it a bad time to be forming one.
So which Dubs team do we see moving forward?
It likely depends on which Poole we see moving forward.
Which means it’s anyone’s guess what’s next.