The 3 vs. 6 matchup in the Western Conference is set to be a nail-biter, as the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers square up in a rematch of their thrilling 2019 second-round series. Damian Lillard got the edge on Nikola Jokic two years ago, but do he and the Blazers have what it takes to get the better of him this time around? Let’s find out.
Denver comes into this series with a strange mixture of optimism and despondency. After a run to the conference finals last season, propelled mainly by a breakout playoff campaign from Jamal Murray, expectations were high for a conference finals return, or even a debut appearance in the NBA finals.
The Nuggets lived up to those expectations. Serbian superstar Nikola Jokic was only a blip on most fans’ MVP radars to start the season but he now looks to be the presumptive winner. Murray continued his strong form, averaging a career-high in points per game. And Michael Porter Jr. finally appears to be blossoming into the dynamic scoring machine that made him the top high school recruit in the country in 2017.
But in an April 12 game against the Golden State Warriors, they received what looked to be at the time a death blow to their title aspirations. With just minutes remaining in the game, Jamal Murray went down clutching his knee. He’d torn his anterior cruciate ligament, effectively ending his season. Even with Jokic and Porter Jr. playing at all-time levels, many all but wrote off the Nuggets sans-Murray as serious contenders.
And yet despite the odds, they just kept winning. Denver finished 13-5 down the stretch to secure their third straight season as a top-three seed in the Western Conference. A lot of that winning had to do with Porter Jr., who stepped up big time in Murray’s absence. He’s been scorching hot since the all-star game, averaging over 22 points per game with an effective field goal percentage higher than any volume scorer since Wilt Chamberlain.
With or without Murray, the Denver Nuggets have proven to be a handful for any team in the league, and they have every right to believe they can still make some noise this postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers
Few teams have had such a roller coaster of a season as the Portland Trail Blazers. After retooling their roster in the offseason with defensive-minded additions like Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr., Portland hoped to fix what was one of last season’s most porous defensive outfits. And with stalwart center Jusuf Nurkic also back at full-strength, it seemed like they had a real shot of doing just that.
But things fell off the rails rather quickly on that end. Nurkic broke his wrist and missed multiple months, Jones played below expectations and nearly fell out of the rotation by May, and only Covington really played up to his gaudy defensive reputation. Their defensive woes got so bad at points that Terry Stott’s position as Head Coach was seriously called into question.
Luckily for Stotts, the Blazers have an offense even more dynamic than their defense is woeful. Their 117.8 offensive rating ranks among the best marks in NBA history. Most of that is thanks to perhaps the most offensively gifted backcourt in the league. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined to average 52 points per game this season, more than any other backcourt duo outside of Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal. Add in players like new addition Norman Powell, future hall-of-famer Carmelo Anthony and elite sharpshooter Anfernee Simons, and it’s easy to see why Portland’s offense seems downright unstoppable at times.
It all came together down the stretch for Portland. Since March 27, they’ve had the best offense in basketball and their defense has started to trend more towards mediocre than downright awful. A lot of that has to do with Jusuf Nurkic, who seems to finally be playing like his old self before his brutal leg injury two years ago. He averaged a 13-11-4 in the month of May while contributing nearly three combined steals and blocks per game. All this resulted in a 10-2 run to finish the season strong and avoid the dreaded play-in games.
The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the hottest teams in basketball, but they’re also one of the most inconsistent and it’s not clear what version of them will get in the playoffs.
What To Watch
The Trail Blazers rely on the pick-and-roll more than any other team in the league, and for good reason. Their 1.00 points per possession from PnR ball handlers ranked first in the NBA, mainly thanks to the space it opens up for Damian Lillard to operate. But they’ll be coming up against a Nuggets defense who’s better than anyone at defending it. Look for Nikola Jokic to push up aggressively to stop Lillard and McCollum from making plays off the switch. Whoever wins the pick-and-roll battle is going to have a serious advantage, one that might be enough to swing the series on its own.
The Nuggets Three-Point Defense
The Blazers certainly aren’t afraid to shoot from outside, ranking second in three-pointers made and sixth in percentage. At any given time they’ll usually have at least four, if not five, legitimate threats from beyond the arc on the court. Whether the Nuggets defense will be able to handle this shooting barrage is key to their chances of advancing. Look for them to use their new acquisition Aaron Gordon and his athleticism as a versatile close-out guy on the outside.
Porter Jrs. Impact
Michael Porter Jr. only averaged 12 points per game against Portland in the regular season, albeit on great efficiency, and the Nuggets are going to need much more from him if they want to win the series. It was Jamal Murray last year whose heroic performances helped spur Denver’s run to the conference finals, and the Nuggets need a similar effort from Porter Jr. to make up for Murray’s absence.
This is really a series that could go either way but the scales tip slightly more towards the lower-seeded Blazers for a couple of reasons.
The first is health. The loss of Murray is going to hurt Denver even more come playoff time when buckets are hard to come by. Other key Nuggets role players like Will Barton and Monte Morris also aren’t at 100%. On the other side, Portland hasn’t been this healthy in a long time. Outside of Zach Collins, who hasn’t played all season with an ankle injury, the Blazers should have everyone ready and available for game one.
The second is form. While both teams have been hot, the Blazers have just been on another level the past few weeks. They’ve scored over 120 points eight times in their last 12 games, including five games scoring over 130. Denver’s defense is good, but they’re not equipped to handle a Portland offense playing this well.
Final Prediction: Portland in 7
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com
‘From our Haus to yours’