We’ve got a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals, and if this series is anything like what we saw back then, get ready for a seven-match brawl that could include some overtime, like this quadruple OT thriller. A few veteran Kia MVP candidates in Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard are headlining the matchup, but it’s likely this series will get depth and supportive casts.
“We’re not going to look in this series like, ‘Well, we did it two years ago. So it can be done now,” said Lillard. “They’re different. Jokic is an even better player now. He was great back then. but now he’s a better player I feel like they’re a deeper team now So we’ve got our hands full But it’s a good match for us and one we think we’re more than capable of to win. ”
The Trail Blazers are entering the series apparently already battle-tested, after dealing with numerous injuries that sidelined major contributors CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic for extended periods of time. That left Lillard to carry the load as usual. Injuries are also weakening Denver during the postseason, and it will have to find a way to replace Jamal Murray’s score. Murray dropped a few 50 pieces in the first round of the 2020 playoffs and averaged more 31.6 ppg in that streak. Murray faced an end-of-season ACL in April, and the Nuggets must rely on young star Michael Porter Jr. to give some score next to Jokic.
Three things to watch
1. Depth for both teams: As noted above, Murray’s loss somewhat limits Denver’s offensive potential. But let’s also not forget that the Nuggets have been without Monte Morris and Will Barton for a long time as they missed 21 games together. How is their health? Barton (hamstring) was out of the regular season finals against the Trail Blazers and Morris recently returned to the lineup after missing 12 consecutive games due to a hamstring strain. Porter and new hire Aaron Gordon are more than able to combine to replace Murray’s production. They also give Denver some athleticism in defense and rebounding. The Blazers bench meanwhile struggled for most of the regular season. Portland added what was expected to be improved wing defenses in the off-season, but those moves never proved to be quite fruitful. The Blazers finished the regular season in 29th placeth in defensive rating.
2. How Denver defends the 3 pointer: Portland is # 2 in the league in 3-point tries with 40.8 per game, and the scary part is that the Blazers take them down, finishing sixth in a 3-point percentage (38.5%). Denver allowed an average of 35.7 3-pointers per game during the regular season, which stands at 22nd in competition with opponents connecting only 36.3% of those attempts. Gordon should help immensely in this area as his athleticism and versatility would somewhat limit Lillard and McCollum’s ability to expand Denver’s defenses. Lillard has taken more than 44% out of the range in three of his last five matches against the Nuggets and has turned better than 54% in two of those outings.
3. Experience vs. experience: This series marks Portland’s eighth straight playoff appearance as the Nuggets are on their third straight. Both teams are well versed in all the nuances of ultra high stakes basketball, and there is a lot of familiarity between the teams. Most importantly, both teams are hungry to live up to the potential they’ve shown over the years with deep post-season runs. “What we’re doing is giving ourselves a chance every post season, and we’re going to believe we can be a team that can run,” said Lillard. ‘If we don’t believe that, we have no chance. We’re coming in this late season and not saying ‘it’s our eighth consecutive time’. We come to try to make something happen. The Nuggets share similar feelings.
Number to know
0.83 – The Nuggets’ defense allowed only 0.83 points per possession, the league’s lowest mark, from pick and roll ball handlers. They played pick-and-rolls relatively aggressively, with Nikola Jokic getting to the level of the screen much more than most centers in the league. That kind of defense makes it difficult for the ball handler to score and / or shoot efficiently. And that seems like a good strategy against the Blazers, the team that scored 1.00 points per possession on possession, the best in 17 seasons of Synergy tracking. Last season, Damian Lillard set the best individual score (1.15 per possession) in those 17 years. This season, he and CJ McCollum were two of nine players to score at least one point per possession on seven or more in possession per game.
The Nuggets won the regular season series 2-1 and put their starters to rest in the second half of the Blazers’ win on Sunday. But the Blazers, who ranked second in the league overall, scored more than 122 points per 100 holdings over the three games. According to Second Spectrum tracking, only Brooklyn (with less than half the number of plays) was more efficient against Denver when setting up a ball screen. Portland’s 29th defense will have trouble stopping the Nuggets on the other side of the floor, but Jokic’s ability to control and fight Lillard and McCollum will be in the spotlight in this series.
– John Schuhmann
Undoubtedly, Portland’s defense towards the end of the regular season was much better than the final regular season rankings indicate. But that area remains a problem for the Blazers, who face a powerful Denver squad that finished season No. 6 with an offensive rating (116.3). You can expect a lot of high-scoring nights in this series as Portland is No. 2 in offensive rating (117.1). But this series will ultimately boil down to how the respective supporting casts complement Lillard and Jokic – as well as the teams’ banking units. Denver seems to have the advantage in both categories. Nuggets in 7.
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