2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers
Nikola Jokic proves too big of a matchup issue for Trail Blazers
Denver's Kia MVP favorite shows during the series that there are no easy answers for defending him.
The 2020-21 regular season was the most efficient in NBA history, with the league scoring 111.7 points per 100 possessions. Through 40 games, the 2021 playoffs have been even more efficient, with teams combining to score more than 114 per 100.
There were a couple of low-efficiency series (Milwaukee-Miami and Phoenix-L.A.) in the first round, but other teams were able to make up for that. The Brooklyn Nets had the most efficient offensive series of the last 25 years. The Utah Jazz scored almost 13 more points per 100 possessions than their opponent (the Memphis Grizzlies) allowed in the regular season. And the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers just completed the first series in the last 25 years in which both teams scored more than 120 points per 100 possessions.
Damian Lillard had the highest scoring playoff series of his career, adding 10.2 assists to his 34.3 points per game. But ultimately, Nikola Jokic — 33 points (on 50/40/90 shooting splits), 10.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists — was the biggest matchup problem in the series. And down the stretch of Game 6 with their season on the line, the Blazers had no answer for pick-and-rolls involving the Kia MVP favorite, who finished with 36 points and six assists in a 126-115 victory that sent the Nuggets to the conference semifinals.
Here’s a look at how the Nuggets finished off the Blazers and what the Phoenix Suns will have to deal with in the conference semifinals.
Can’t stay attached
When Jokic checked in midway through the fourth quarter, the Nuggets first tried posting Michael Porter Jr. against Lillard. When Lillard stood Porter up, Jokic bailed out his teammate with a rather ridiculous, high-arcing 3-pointer over Jusuf Nurkic.
On the next four possessions, the Nuggets went to pick-and-roll actions involving Jokic. After a missed layup and a replay review, Jokic handed the ball to Austin Rivers. With CJ McCollum trailing Rivers around the screen, Nurkic needed to stop the ball. But Rivers froze him with a hesitation move and put the Nuggets ahead with a layup.
After Nurkic turned the ball over on the other end, the Nuggets went to a straight pick-and-roll with Jokic setting a screen for Monte Morris. Norman Powell got hit by the screen, but instead of stepping in front of the ball, Nurkic stayed attached to Jokic. Morris got into the paint for a short floater …
On the next possession, Nurkic again stayed attached to Jokic. Lillard had to step up, leaving JaMychal Green on the baseline to stop Morris’ drive. Morris got the ball to Green, who was fouled …
Can’t hedge and recover
On the next possession, Nurkic left Jokic to stop the ball. Jokic popped to the other side of the floor, got Nurkic in the air with a pump fake, and drew a foul as he drove by …
Can’t leave the shooter
When the Nuggets ran a fourth straight Morris/Jokic pick-and-roll after inbounding the ball, Powell pinched off of Rivers on the left wing to help on the Morris drive. Morris quickly kicked the ball to Rivers for a catch-and-shoot 3 …
Can’t play small
On the next possession, the Blazers switched Robert Covington onto Jokic, likely to hedge and recover with more mobility than Nurkic. Alas, Jokic just took him into the paint and dropped in a jump hook.
That was the last of seven straight scores for the Nuggets, a 17-2 run that turned a four-point deficit into an 11-point lead and, basically, ended the Blazers’ season.
The next challenge
Portland scored an efficient 115 points on 95 possessions on Thursday … and lost by 11. The Blazers had the fourth best offense in the first round … and lost in six games.
The Phoenix Suns ranked sixth defensively in the regular season and are coming off a series in which they shut down the (hobbled) defending champs. The Nuggets will not be able to pick them apart as much as they did the the Blazers, who had the 29th-ranked defense.
But there are no easy answers for defending Nikola Jokic. How the Suns approach that task will be the biggest thing to watch in a conference semifinals series that begins Monday.
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