Trail Blazers (6) vs. Nuggets (3): A First-Round Playoff Preview

by Casey Holdahl
Follow @chold

Considering the events of the last 18 months, the 2020-21 Portland Trail Blazers probably didn’t need to remind their fans that you just never really know how things are going to work out, but they did anyway.

There were significant injuries to key members of the team and historic performances delivered to compensate for those absences. They won more games away from the Moda Center than inside of it for the first time in team history, with both records helped along by an inexplicable home losing streak and a late-season rally that began on the road. They at times looked as though they might end the season with a top four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round, and at other times it seemed like ending up in the play-in tournament was a foregone conclusion.

And when they lost by one-point to the Suns in the penultimate game of the season, either dropping into the play-in or facing the Clippers, considering by many to be the Trail Blazers’ worst potential matchup, in the first round seemed like the likeliest scenario.

But again, you just never know. So with the Clippers losing their last two games and the Mavericks getting blown out in their finale, neither of which anyone expected to occur, the Trail Blazers finished in a three-way tie with Dallas and the Lakers for fifth, with Portland getting the six-seed and a first round matchup with the three-seed Nuggets, the team they had to defeat in their finale order to avoid the play-in.

So in the end, the Trail Blazers went from their worst possible first round matchup to arguably their best, all in a couple of days and with no reason to believe prior that it would play out that way. For a fan base that often assumes the worst -- and not always without cause -- ending up with the best-case scenario was, again, proof that there’s only so much value in prognostication.

Not that the three regular season matchups between the Trail Blazers and Nuggets gives one much to base a prediction upon. The first two games, both on the second night of back-to-backs for the Trail Blazers, were decided by six points combined, with the Nuggets winning both contests. And with the final game in the series being the last game of the season for both teams and the Nuggets having no real cause to effort a win (and perhaps even some incentive to lose), there’s not much, if anything, that can be taken from Portland’s lone win the three-game season series. And with there being few remaining holdovers in either teams’ rotation from the last time the Trail Blazers and Nuggets met in the postseason back in 2019, there’s probably not a whole lot that can be gleaned from those games -- other than that Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are all still very good players.

Given that, the matchup between the Trail Blazers and Nuggets is likely to be as unpredictable as the season. The Nuggets losing their second-best player, Jamal Murray, to an ACL injury would seem to give the Trail Blazers an advantage, though Jokic is still the odds-on favorite to win MVP and both Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon have proven themselves to be formidable. And on the other side, a team that finished the season sixth in offense rating going up against the 29th-rated defense would seem like a recipe for a relative easy series, though the Trail Blazers’ defense improved considerably in the last month while their offense, always one of the most efficient this season, has been the most efficient since the All-Star break. Basically, one could legitimately come up with well-reasoned hypotheses why either team will win the series, either in close or blowout fashion.

But the course of the series will become more clear with the team tip off Game 1 Saturday night in Denver. The rest of the schedule hasn’t been set -- perhaps another homage to unpredictability this season -- but one thing we do know for sure is that Game 1 will be played at 7:30 p.m. at Ball Arena.

FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE

PORTLAND - DENVER FIRST ROUND SCHEDULE

GAME

DATE

LOCATION

TIME (PDT)

Television

Game 1

Saturday, May 22

Denver

7:30 PM

NBCSNW/ESPN

Game 2

Monday, May 24

Denver

7 PM

NBCSNW/TNT

Game 3

Thursday, May 27

Portland

7:30 PM

NBCSNW/NBATV

Game 4

Saturday, May 29

Portland

1 PM

NBCSNW/TNT

Game 5*

Tuesday, June 1

Denver

TBD

TBD

Game 6*

Thursday, June 3

Portland

TBD

TBD

Game 7*

Saturday, June 5

Denver

TBD

TBD

*if necessary

SEASON SERIES NOTES

• In three games against the Nuggets this season, Damian Lillard averaged 23.0 points (43.9% FG, 36.7% 3-PT, 100% FT), 4.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists. Lillard has logged a double-double in four of his last six games against Denver.

• CJ McCollum played in two games against Denver this season, posting averages of 19.0 points (50.0% FG, 43.8% 3-PT, 100%FT), 5.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.50 steals. In the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals against Denver, McCollum averaged 26.4 points (45.5% FG, 37.5% 3-PT, 77.3% FT), 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists.

• In two games against the Nuggets this season, Carmelo Anthony averaged 15.3 points (47.2% FG, 41.2% 3-PT, 100% FT), 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists. Anthony scored 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting (3-7 3-PT, 3-3 FT) at Denver on Feb. 23.

• Jusuf Nurkic appeared in two games against Denver this season, averaging 14.0 points (52.4% FG, 50.0% 3-PT, 62.5% FT), 10.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.00 steal and 1.00 block. Nurkic boasts career averages of 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds against the Nuggets.

• In three games against the Trail Blazers this season, Nikola Jokic averaged 29.0 points (52.2% FG, 26.7% 3-PT, 92.9% FT), 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Jokic had 41 points (17-32 FG, 3-6 3-PT, 4-4 FT) against Portland on Feb. 23.

• Michael Porter Jr. averaged 12.7 points (51.7% FG, 42.9% 3-PT, 66.7% FT), 6.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist in three games against Portland this season. Porter has recorded two double-doubles in five career games against the Trail Blazers.

PLAYOFF SERIES NOTES

• Portland and Denver have faced each other thrice in the postseason, with the Trail Blazers taking two of the three playoff meetings.

• The Trail Blazers and Nuggets are 5-5 against each other in the playoffs, all-time.

• The Trail Blazers defeated the Nuggets 4-2 in the 1977 NBA Western Conference Semifinals despite Denver holding home court advantage. Portland won the NBA Championship that year.

• The Nuggets took a five-game first round series vs. the Trail Blazers in 1986, 3-1.

• More recently, the Trail Blazers met the Nuggets in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals. The series went seven games, with the Trail Blazers pulling out a come-from-behind victory in Game 7 in Denver to take the series 3-4 and advance to the Western Conference Finals. 

• Former Trail Blazers Will Barton has playoff experience with the Trail Blazers. Barton averaged 6.4 points, 1.7 rebounds, 0.4 assists and 11.6 minutes in six games during the 2014 postseason vs. Houston and San Antonio. .

• The series is only Portland’s third playoff matchup against a divisional opponent since facing the Lakers in 2002 as members of the Pacific Division.

PLAYOFF NOTES

• Thirteen of Portland’s 16 players have postseason experience entering the 2021 Playoffs, combining for a total of of 391 postseason games. Carmelo Anthony (77), Norman Powell (67), Damian Lillard (55), Enes Kanter (54), CJ McCollum (51), Robert Covington (22) and Derrick Jones Jr. (15) have all played in 15 or more playoff games. Anthony, Powell, Lillard, Kanter, McCollum and Jones have all played in the Conference Finals while Powell won a championship with Toronto in 2019.3:54

• The Trail Blazers enter the 2021 Playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. It is the 10th time in franchise history that Portland has been seeded sixth. The team has lost each of the nine previous series and has a cumulative postseason record of 13-28 as the sixth seed. The most recent series was in 2011 when Portland fell to Dallas, 2-4.

• Jusuf Nurkic averaged 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.40 steals in five games against the Lakers during the 2020 postseason. Injuries limited Nurkic’s availability during the 2017 and 2019 postseasons, but in 10 career playoff games, he has averaged 12.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.30 steals and 0.70 blocks. He is one of seven active NBA players with career postseason averages of at least 12.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.00 steal (James/Davis/Antetokounmpo/Jokic/Doncic/Green).

CONNECTIONS

• Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony was selected by the Nuggets with the third overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft. Anthony played in 564 games (all starts) over eight seasons with Denver, posting averages of 24.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Anthony is third on the Nuggets all-time scoring list (13,970 points).

• Portland center Jusuf Nurkic began his career in Denver, appearing in 139 games (59 starts) in two and a half seasons while averaging 7.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.06 blocks.

• Denver guard/forward Will Barton started his career in Portland, averaging 3.8 points and 1.8 rebounds in 144 games (five starts) in two and a half seasons with the Trail Blazers.

TRAIL BLAZERS TALK NUGGETS

Damian Lillard on matching up with the Denver Nuggets and the difference in facing them in 2021...

"They’re a different team now, and at that time, we were also a different team. A lot of different players, our makeup was different, but I think our ability to (win) is just as strong, if not stronger, with the team we have now. I think what we do have mentally is just knowing we’re capable of going in and doing that, going in and winning a game on the road, or multiple games on the road, and also winning a big one on the road if we have to. We know that we’re capable, our team is still led by me and CJ. We comfortable knowing that, that we’ve experienced it and we’ve done it before.

"But we’re not coming into this series looking at it like ‘Well, we did it two years ago so it can be done now.’ They’re different, Jokic is an even better player now. He was great then and he’s a better player now. I feel like they’re a deeper team now. We got our hands full but it’s a good matchup for us and one that we feel like we’re more than capable of winning."


CJ McCollum on facing the Nuggets after finishing the season sixth in the West...

"They’ve got a guy who is probably going to win MVP, they’re a little banged up but they’re still very, very capable. It’s going to be a tough matchup.

"Obviously I was hurt, I missed a third of the season, Nurk missed a third of the season and we still found a way to make the playoffs for the eighth-straight year. That’s a testament to our organization, testament to our players and our coaching staff. And for us, losing five or six straight, the world acting like it’s coming to an end, I think we did a pretty good job of turning things around and playing some of our better basketball going into the postseason."


Norman Powell on the matchup versus the Denver Nuggets...

"I’m pretty familiar with how they play, I have a good idea of how they’re going to attack. I think we matchup really well with them. We have multiple ways to guard them, multiple lineups that we can throw at them, offensively and defensively, to get the looks and take advantage of the matchups that we see fit. I’m excited. Playoffs, every game is different, just roll with it and make the necessary adjustments game after game. But I think we match up really well with them, top to bottom."


Robert Covington on matching up against a Northwest Division foe...

"We matchup really well. It’s going to be an exciting series. What we’re capable of, we’ve began to do a lot down the stretch of the season. Really locked in defensively, we had a different approach, just locking in mentally the last few games to put ourselves in position. I think our mindset and everything is in a much different place and I think everyone’s approaches is a lot better than what it was before. Everybody is mentally locked in more because understanding that we all we got. At the end of the day, what we put in is what we get out. As long as we're doing what we got to do, what comes from it is what we're going to accept."


Jusuf Nurkic on getting to play after missing the last playoff matchup versus Denver and defending Nikola Jokic...

"Of course I’m excited for playoffs. That position was taken away from me so I definitely not going to take for granted that. I’m really excited to be a part of something, so I think this is a great opportunity for us to be healthy as possible for the playoffs, obviously minus Zach. This is huge thing for me, for sure.

"(Jokic) playing at such a high level right now, whole season. If Dame not gonna win the MVP, I think he gonna win MVP. He should win MVP, I will not be mad at all, I’ll be happy for him, for real. Obviously everything go around him, they have a great system they put together for him... He have really ridiculous number so I think he’s suppose to be the MVP and I wish, of not Dame, I would really be happy for him to be MVP. He deserve.

"I think it’s team effort to guard player like that with a system like that. It take more than one player, like you guarding LeBron or KD. When everything in one guy, he can really pass the ball, winning passer. Obviously they short handed without Murray and Barton but they still dangerous team."

THE BLAZERS BALCONY TALKS PLAYOFFS

SEASON STATISTICS

Points per game: Trail Blazers 116.1 (5th), Nuggets 115.1 (8th)

Points against per game: Trail Blazers 114.3 (23rd), Nuggets 110.1 (8th)

Point differential: Trail Blazers +1.7 (12th) , Nuggets +4.9 (6th)

Field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 45.3 percent (23rd), Nuggets 48.5 percent (4th)

Opponent field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 45.3 percent (23rd), Nuggets 46.9 percent (18th)

Three-point field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 38.5 percent (6th), Nuggets 37.7 percent (8th)

Opponent three-point field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 37.2 percent (20th), Nuggets 36.3 percent (11st)

Effective field goal percentage: Trail Blazers 54.0 percent (15th), Nuggets 55.7 (6th)

True Shooting Percentage: Trail Blazers 57.7 percent (13th), Nuggets 58.8 (6th)

Rebounds per game: Trail Blazers 44.5 (12th), Nuggets 44.4 (13th)

Offensive rebounds per game: Trail Blazers 10.6 (3rd), Nuggets 10.5 (8th)

Rebound differential: Trail Blazers -0.8 (16th), Nuggets +3.2 (4th)

Assists per game: Portland 21.3 (30th), Nuggets 6.8 (5th)

Turnovers per game: Trail Blazers 11.1 (1st), Nuggets 13.5 (12th)

Pace: Trail Blazers 98.9 (19th), Nuggets 97.7 (27th)

Offensive rating: Trail Blazers 117.1 (2nd), Nuggets 116.3 (6th)

Defensive rating: Trail Blazers 115.3 (29th), Nuggets 111.5 (11th)

Net rating: Trail Blazers +1.8 (12th), Nuggets +4.8 (7th)

PREVIOUS MEETINGS

• December 16, 2020: Denver Nuggets 128, Portland Trail Blazers 95 (preseason)

After adding the likes of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. and making changes to their system, the goal going into the 2020-21 season wasn’t to necessarily become a lockdown defense, but at least one that could hold opponents in check at least enough to take advantage of their elite offense.

But the Trail Blazers failed to even slow, let alone stop, a talented Nuggets offense in the first quarter, with the home team shooting 16-of-23 from the field. The Nuggets had 14 assists, a 13-6 advantage on the boards, shot 56 percent from three and scored 22 points in the paint in the first quarter, a combination that resulted in 42-34 deficit going into the second quarter.

“Sacramento shot a lot of threes, Denver shot a lot of three, so that is a concern,” said Stotts. “But one of the things we’ve really wanted to emphasize, probably a bigger concern, was in the first half, they were 14-for-15 at the rim. We can’t give up threes and give up the rim.”

To make matters worse, Portland struggled to get into an offensive rhythm, shooting 33 percent from the field and a paltry 1-of-9 from three in the first quarter, and would only improve to 27 percent before the final buzzer.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, we didn’t necessarily have a good offensive game, but I think we’ve shown over the years that we’re going to be a good offensive team,” said Stotts. “So the concern is defense and doing some things differently in a short amount of time is challenging.”

While the Trail Blazers made improvements over the next 24 minutes -- they were only outscored by two points in the second quarter and by one in the third -- with both teams sitting their starters in the fourth, Denver’s bench outscored Portland’s by 11 to secure the 31-point victory.

• December 18, 2020: Denver Nuggets 129, Portland Trail Blazers 96 (preseason)

“My general takeaway is we’re trying to implement things defensively that involves more pressure, more rotations and the fact that we’re playing an excellent offensive team that passes well, I think it’s a bad combination,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Certainly I’m not happy with the two results that we’ve played here. I think Denver picked us a part because they’re a very good offensive team, and excellent passing team with a lot of three point shooters.”

After giving up 41 points on 70 percent shooting in the first quarter of Wednesday’s blowout loss to the Nuggets, the hope was that the Trail Blazers could put together a far better effort in the rematch Friday night.

That would not be the case, as the Nuggets once again scored 41 points in the first quarter, albeit on 58 percent shooting, Friday night. And unlike in Wednesday’s game, Portland’s defense didn’t improve in the second and third quarters.

And with Damian Lillard (rest) sitting out and Derrick Jones Jr. leaving the game in the third quarter after suffering a back contusion after taking a hard fall, there wasn’t much to take from the second half other than that Portland has a lot of issues to address before the start of the regular season.

“Any way to get better, it’s going to be done on the practice court,” said Stotts. “We’ve got three days to prepare for Utah. The good thing is that we have a relatively veteran team and I think, as poorly as looked the last couple games, I think that we’re still a good enough team that we can turn things around pretty quickly.”

• February 23, 2021: Denver Nuggets 111, Portland Trail Blazers 106 

After going down by as many as 11 points in the first quarter on the second night of a back-to-back, Portland got a boost from Carmelo Anthony in the second quarter to get back into the game. The veteran forward put up 16 points in the quarter on 6-of-8 shooting versus the team that selected him with the third pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, allowing the Blazers to outscore the Nuggets by nine and go into the intermission tied at 57-57.

“We rode Melo in the second quarter,” said Stotts. “He was outstanding in the second quarter.”

Portland and Denver went blow-for-blow for the entirely of the third quarter -- the score was tied on four different occasions and neither team led by more than six -- and for the first half of the fourth. But the game would turn when the Blazers went scoreless from the 5:39 to the 1:47 marks of the fourth quarter.

And while the Nuggets weren’t exactly lighting it up, Portland’s dry spell allowed for an 8-0 run that ultimately tilted the game in Denver’s favor.

“We just didn’t hit shots,” said Derrick Jones Jr. of Portland’s fourth quarter. “We didn’t hit shots that we usually hit. So, we just have to go back to the drawing board. Just watch the film and see what we did wrong today. Just try to get better for the next game.”

• April 21, 2021: Denver Nuggets 106, Portland Trail Blazers 105

Despite their lack of success this season versus teams above them in the standings, the Trail Blazers looked like they might actually pull away from the Nuggets, currently the fourth-place team in the West, on multiple occasions Wednesday night. They held the Nuggets scoreless for over six minutes in the second quarter and went on an 18-2 run in the third quarter, both of which resulted in the Trail Blazers taking healthy leads.

But every time they had a chance to pull away, they let the Nuggets back into the game. What was an eight-point Portland lead in the second quarter turned into a three-point deficit by the half. And after going up 77-67 with just over five minutes to play in the third, Portland was outscored 15-7 to go into the fourth leading by two.

“We’ve got a bad habit of working hard and putting possessions together and putting stretches together and then we relax,” said Damian Lillard. “We build a 10-point lead or an eight-point lead and then we feel like we got room and we just relax. You can see it and you can feel it sometimes where it’s like, well two minutes ago they wouldn’t have got that cut. Two minutes ago, we would have came up with that rebound. So it’s like that urgency and that focus, it can’t waiver. When it’s up and down and you playing against good teams, they’ll make you pay for it.”

The game would remain close thereafter, with neither team going up my more than six in the fourth. And just as was the case versus the Clippers, the game came down to the final possession.

Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon corralled a rebound after Nikola Jokic missed a three with 11.6 seconds to play, but Lillard managed to tie him up to force a jump ball. Lillard would win the tip, with Robert Covington coming away with the ball and a chance to make the go-ahead basket down 106-105. But rather than driving, Covington found Norman Powell open for a floater just before time expired, but the ball rimmed off, sealing yet another loss to a team above .500.

• May 16, 2021: Portland Trail Blazers 132, Denver Nuggets 116

In an unpredictable last day of the season, which saw multiple teams opt for rest rather than a win, the Trail Blazers ended up in a three-way tie for fifth thanks in part to a 132-116 victory versus the Nuggets in front of a sellout crowd of 1,939 Sunday night at Moda Center.

“It’s going to be a competitive series,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Obviously this game was not indicative of either team, per se. Last time we played them it was a one-point game, so that was competitive. It should be pretty interesting.”

The Trail Blazers finish the regular season by going 42-30 overall and 20-16 at home this season. Portland closed out the season by winning 10 of their final 12 games and their last four contests at Moda Center. And with the win, the Trail Blazers qualify for the playoffs for the eighth-straight season.

“I’m a big wrestling fan and everybody don’t get to participate in the Royal Rumble,” said Damian Lillard. “But we’ve been in the Royal Rumble eight years straight. We haven’t been the last man standing yet, but we in there every time, we one of the teams in there. Sometimes we’ve been the first team thrown over the rope, we’ve been almost one of the last few thrown over the rope. We just continue to be there.”

Between the Blazers winning, the Mavericks losing to the Timberwolves and the Lakers defeating the Pelicans, all on Sunday night, Portland, Dallas and Los Angeles all finished the season with the same record. The three-way tiebreaker dictates that the Mavericks get the five-seed by virtue of winning their division, while the Trail Blazers get the six-seed and the Lakers the seven-seed.

And with the Clippers losing to the Thunder -- a loss that was preceded by one to the Rockets -- and the Nuggets losing to the Trail Blazers, L.A. gets the four-five matchup with the Mavericks while Denver draws the Trail Blazers in the three-six matchup and a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals.

“We’re not coming into this series looking at it 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, (and) he was great then. He’s a better player now, I feel like they’re a deeper team now. We’ve got our hands full, but it’s a good matchup for us and one that we feel like we’re more than capable of winning. We’ve just got to rest up and get ready for it.”

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