2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers

Series preview: Depth, defense will be key in Nuggets-Blazers series

Superstars Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic may not be the ones who decide this rematch of familiar playoff rivals.

Is Portland’s defense up to the task of slowing down Kia MVP favorite Nikola Jokic?

We’ve got a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference semifinals, and if this series is anything like what we witnessed back then, buckle up for a seven-game slugfest that could include some overtime nail biters, such as this quadruple-OT thriller. A pair of experienced Kia MVP candidates in Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard headline the matchup, but it’s likely this series ends up coming down depth and supporting casts.

“We’re not coming into this series looking at it like, ‘Well, we did it two years ago. So, it can be done now,’ ” Lillard said. “They’re different. Jokic is an even better player now. He was great then, but he’s a better player now. I feel like they’re a deeper team now. So, 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.”

The Trail Blazers enter the series seemingly already battle-tested, having dealt with numerous injuries that sidelined major contributors CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic for extended periods. That left Lillard to carry the load as usual. Injuries also weaken Denver coming into the postseason, and it will need to find a way to replace Jamal Murray’s scoring. Murray dropped a couple of 50-pieces in the first round of the 2020 playoffs and averaged more 31.6 ppg in that series. Murray suffered a season-ending torn ACL in April, and the Nuggets need lean on budding young star Michael Porter Jr. to provide some scoring punch alongside Jokic.

Three things to watch

1. Depth for both teams: As mentioned above, the loss of Murray somewhat limits Denver’s offensive potential. But let’s also remember the Nuggets have played without Monte Morris and Will Barton for long periods, as they’ve combined to miss 21 games. How’s their health? Barton (hamstring) sat out the regular-season finale against the Trail Blazers and Morris just recently returned to the lineup after missing 12 straight games due to a hamstring strain. Porter and new addition Aaron Gordon are more than capable of combining to replace Murray’s production. They also give Denver some athleticism on defense and rebounding. The Blazers’ bench, meanwhile, struggled for the better part of the regular season. Portland added what it expected to be improved defense on the wing in the offseason, but those moves never really proved fruitful. The Blazers finished the regular season ranked 29th in defensive rating.

2. How Denver defends the 3-pointer: Portland ranks No. 2 in the league in 3-point attempts at 40.8 per game, and the scary part is the Blazers knock them down, ranking sixth in 3-point percentage (38.5%). Denver allowed an average of 35.7 3-pointers per game during the regular season, which ranks as 22nd in the league with opponents connecting on just 36.3% of those attempts. Gordon should help tremendously in this area, as his athleticism and versatility should somewhat limit Lillard and McCollum’s ability to stretch Denver’s defense. Lillard has drained better than 44% from range in three of his last five games against the Nuggets and drilled better than 54% in two of those outings.

3. Experience vs. experience: This series marks Portland’s eighth consecutive playoff appearance, while the Nuggets are on their third straight. Both teams are well-versed with all the nuances of ultra-high-stakes basketball, and there’s plenty of familiarity between the teams. Most importantly, both teams are hungry to live up to the potential they’ve displayed over the years with deep postseason runs. “What we do is give ourselves a chance every postseason, and we go into it believing we could be a team that can make a run,” Lillard said. “If we don’t believe that, then we don’t have a chance. We’re coming into this postseason not saying, ‘it’s our eighth straight.’ We’re coming in trying to make something happen.” The Nuggets share similar sentiments.

Number to know

0.83 — The Nuggets’ defense allowed just 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 coming up to the level of the screen a lot more than most centers around the league. That kind of defense makes it tough 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 ball-handler possessions, the best mark in 17 seasons of Synergy tracking. Last season, Damian Lillard set the best individual mark (1.15 per possession) in those 17 years. This season, he and CJ McCollum were two of the nine players who scored at least a point per possession on seven or more ball-handler possessions per game.

The Nuggets won the regular season series, 2-1, and rested their starters in the second half of the Blazers’ win on Sunday. But the Blazers, who had the league’s second-ranked offense overall, scored more than 122 points per 100 possessions over the three games. According to Second Spectrum tracking, only Brooklyn (on less than half as many plays) was more efficient against Denver when setting a ball screen. Portland’s 29th-ranked defense will have issues stopping the Nuggets on the other end of the floor, but Jokic’s ability to contain and contest Lillard and McCollum will be under the spotlight in this series.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

No doubt, Portland’s defense toward the end of the regular season was much better than its final regular-season rankings indicate. But that area remains an issue for the Blazers, which faces a high-powered Denver squad that finished the season No. 6 in offensive rating (116.3). You can expect plenty of high-scoring nights in this series, as Portland is No. 2 in offensive rating (117.1). But this series will ultimately come down to how the respective supporting casts complement Lillard and Jokic — as well as the teams’ bench units. Denver appears to own the advantage in both categories. Nuggets in 7.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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