* Tonight on ESPN: Game 3, Nuggets vs. Blazers (10:30 ET)
PORTLAND — Attention to detail where Nikola Jokic is concerned has made all the difference in the world for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They couldn’t contain the Denver Nuggets’ All-Star center in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals and paid for it. Jokic was at his dominating best, working from rim to rim, fishing with 37 points, nine rebounds six assists and two blocks.
He backed up every word of Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s declaration last week that Jokic, in his first postseason dip, has separated himself.
“It’s only strengthened my belief that he’s a future Hall of Famer,” Malone said then. “He’s an All-NBA player, an MVP candidate. It’s his first time in the playoffs and this guy is going out there and playing at an unbelievably high level.”
Whether or not Jokic can rise to another tonight is a question he and Malone must answer. The Nuggets need that from Jokic after the Blazers tweaked their defensive strategy on him to take Game 2 and home-court advantage in the series.
They forced Jokic to operate from 3-point line to 3-point line for most of Game 2, limiting his effectiveness around the rim while allowing Enes Kanter to play him evenly.
“I thought we did really well just making him work,” said Blazers star Damian Lillard, “picking him up higher so he’s not just walking into their offense. When he’s dribbling the ball up, pick him up and make him work. Don’t just allow him to move at his own pace and play comfortable.”
Instead of leaving Kanter or any one defender to deal with Jokic and his gifted passing, the Blazers put an assortment of defenders in his way in Game 2.
Kanter had help from Al Farouq-Aminu, Maurice Harkless (in the first half, before he turned his ankle) and Zach Collins. It wasn’t that any one of them stopped Jokic, who even on a tough shooting night still had 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.
“I thought we pressured him a little bit more,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We didn’t give him the clean looks that he had in Game 1. Enes did a good job, Zach Collins had good minutes with him, individually. he got too many offensive rebounds, particularly in the fourth quarter. But I just didn’t think we gave him the freedom to make the plays that he made in Game 1.”
The collective physicality, and the impact it had on Jokic and the Nuggets’ rhythm (and lack thereof) was obvious.
“I thought they all had a huge impact on the game and just making him work,” Lillard said. “When he does get to the block, making him see bodies, stunting on the post, double-team him, having active hands when he is trying to make plays. When he’s going up at the rim, contesting all his shots. If you’re out of position, make him make those free throws. Don’t just let him get the ball in. I thought over 48 minutes, we were there. We made him work the entire game and I thought it worked in our favor.”
He’s like a quarterback out there. I consider him like a Tom Brady. He’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads. I commend him for doing that at this stage of his career.”
Paul Millsap, on center Nikola Jokic
Kanter certainly felt the difference.
“The most important thing was just getting stops,” Kanter said. “He thought it was going to be sweet and he’s going to get his 35 every night, but we I think we knew just start the game very physical … you’ve just got to give everything you have and sacrifice whatever you have”
Forcing Jokic out of his comfort zone and into a space where he must be a dominant scorer has produced mixed playoff results for Denver. Jokic was brilliant in Game 6 of the first round against the San Antonio Spurs (43 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists) … only to see the Nuggets lose. He rebounded with a 21-point, 15-rebound, 10-assists triple-double in Game 7, grinding through 43 minutes as Denver prevailed.
His recognition of when to apply pressure as the primary scorer and when to exploit his other advantages will be critical going forward.
“He’s a sponge, he picks it up,” Nuggets veteran forward Paul Millsap said. “He sees how people are playing and guarding him, and he makes the right play every time. That’s what’s great about him, he doesn’t force anything. He’s going to make the right reads. He’s like a quarterback out there. I consider him like a Tom Brady. He’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads. I commend him for doing that at this stage of his career.”
Jokic acknowledged the difference in feel from Game 1 to Game 2. He knew immediately that he’d fallen into the trap the Blazers set for him. He adjusted in the second half of Game 2, but the Nuggets couldn’t recover from their brutal start in time for it to matter.
And when things got chippy at the end of Game 3, it was too late for the Nuggets. Jokic, however, promises to be ready for whatever the Blazers throw his way in Game 3.
“It’s playoffs,” he said. “We want to win, they want to win. I think it’s normal. We just need to be aggressive and more physical.”
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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