SAN FRANCISCO -- Jordan Poole being introduced as the Warriors' starting point guard instead of Steph Curry for Game 1 of the Warriors' first-round playoff series with the Denver Nuggets certainly came as a surprise. But his 30-point performance Saturday night in the Warriors' 123-107 blowout win?
Perhaps that shouldn't come as such as shock.
"This is kind of what we expected," Steve Kerr said after the win. "He's not afraid of the moment, he was looking forward to it. He works every day to prepare. He had a great game."
Poole's 30 points are tied with Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond for the second-most scored by a Warrior in a playoff debut. The record belongs to fellow Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. Poole became the 35th player in NBA history to score at least 30 points in a playoff debut.
His five 3-pointers, however, is a new Warriors record for a player's first postseason game.
Nothing compares to the NBA playoffs, but Poole isn't new to the big stage by any means. He was a member of the 2017 Dick's National High School champion team at La Lumiere School in Indiana and played hero on the national stage when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer as a freshman at Michigan sent the Wolverines to the Sweet 16. Kerr also believes Poole's performances in two games last season that don't count towards his regular-season or playoff stats helped set the stage for this moment.
In the Warriors' first play-in tournament loss last season, Poole scored 10 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and followed that by dropping 19 in a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies that ended Golden State's season. Kerr was adamant Saturday night that though those two games weren't the primary turning points in Poole's career, it was just another indication that he'll be ready for whatever's thrown his way.
"I felt pretty prepared," Poole said of coming into his playoff debut. "Coaching staff did a really good job of putting the game plan up, setting it up and then we did a really good job as a team just going out there and executing."
Through the first quarter, Poole was patient picking his spots, figuring out how the Nuggets would guard him and trying to play within the Warriors' offense the best he could. He scored just three points, nailing his lone shot attempt -- a 3-pointer -- in barely over six minutes before Curry entered the game for the first time.
The Warriors trailed by one after the first frame, which meant one thing and one thing only: It was time to bring the Poole Party to the playoffs. Warriors fans have seen it time and time again. The playoffs can bring a different animal out of some players, though, and Poole clearly is part of that group.
He exploded for nine straight points early on and totaled 14 for the second quarter. By halftime, Poole already had 17 points and hadn't missed a shot. He was 6-for-6 from the field and made both of his 3-pointers. The only miss for the NBA's leader in free throw percentage came from the line.
The stage was set, Poole answered the call and his 13 second-half points was just the cherry on top.
In Curry's absence as he recovered from a sprained left foot over the last month, Poole did his best Steph impression to the tune of averaging 25.8 points over the Warriors' final 12 games of the regular season. Not bad at all. And it's just what the Warriors have come to expect out of him.
"It's just the same way he's been playing the last two months of the season, and everything he's done to prepare himself for this moment," Curry said. "Once you get over the mental hurdle, you kind of just become more free."
Once Poole caught fire, there was no putting it out. From his layup package to his pull-up 3-pointers and step-back jumpers, this is what we have become accustomed to seeing from the 22-year-old.
Klay Thompson, who served as Poole's backcourt mate and scored 19 points in his first playoff game since tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals, has long had Poole's back. From the moment the Warriors drafted Poole near the end of the first round in 2019, Thompson saw the potential. When Poole had to go down to the G League in each of his first two seasons, Klay remained just as confident in him.
Why? As he battled his way back from two heartbreaking leg injuries, he saw Poole always put the work in, no matter how much playing time he was receiving.
"His work ethic," Thompson said, matter-of-factly when asked why he always knew Poole could turn into a star. "A lot of guys get to the NBA and they are content, but Jordan from Day 1 was in the gym. After practice, he would come back at night. He would shoot after a poor night of shooting. He just stuck with it.
"He went down to the G League his rookie year and got better. Just his hunger. He always had the talent. He had the ball-handling skills, he had the shot. But his work ethic is what's going to propel him to stardom."
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Poole finds himself now as a core part of a team full of championship pedigree. Steph, Klay, Draymond and Andre Iguodala. They're all here, bringing constant reminders of the past and what it takes to win. Poole will be a huge part of the future, but that can wait.
He's just as important right now, and they know it. That's the ultimate sign of trust from a handful of all-time greats, which was as obvious as could be to kick-start this playoff run.
The constantly-rising, never-falling star can feel it, too.
"There's no better feeling than having the guys behind you who have already been through the fight," Poole said. "They have been through it at the highest level. You know that if you make any mistakes, you've got those guys that will pick you up, and there's no better feeling than that.
"I'm just thankful to be out there on the court with those guys, and trying to learn as much as possible so I can continue to put our team in positions to win."
Past and future have perfectly met for the present with the Warriors when it comes to who should be crowned the NBA's Most Improved Player. Poole surprising anybody now is long gone. This is what the Warriors expect out of him, and there's beauty in him feeling the same way.