After defeating the San Antonio Spurs 4-3 in the first round, the Denver Nuggets have setup a second-round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers. The two teams are more than familiar with one another, as a division rivalry has been brewing for several seasons, further intensifying this series.
Season series: 3-1 Nuggets
Although most of the games have been close, Denver has had plenty of success against Portland over the past two seasons. The Nuggets have won six of the past seven games, with the one Portland victory coming in a game in which Denver rested Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap.
The games were high-scoring and offense-oriented. After posting an offensive rating of 112.1 throughout the course of the regular season, the Nuggets dropped a 117.2 offensive rating in the four games against Portland. The strong offensive performance was mainly a result of hot shooting, as Denver connected on 49 percent of shots from the field and 38.4 percent from three.
Despite losing Jusuf Nurkic to a season-ending leg injury towards the end of the regular season, Portland has continued to thrive, having just knocked out the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. The series win was Portland’s first since 2016 and third since Damian Lillard was drafted back in 2012.
Let’s take a look at the key matchups, storylines and statistics that could decide this second-round series.
1) Enes Kanter vs. Jokić
The Nuggets faced two different Trail Blazers teams during the regular season. After facing a healthy Portland team in the first two matchups, the last two games between the teams occurred after Nurkic was lost for the season. Therefore, there is only a two-game sample in which Denver faced a Portland team with Kanter starting at center.
Kanter is a physical post player that can score in bunches and be active on the boards. In his two games against Denver as member of the Trail Blazers, Kanter averaged 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game on 56.6 percent shooting from the field.
Jokić had a lot of success against Portland in the regular season, averaging 25.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and eight assists per game as he knocked down 62 percent of his shots, including 38.5 percent from beyond the arc. In the one game Jokić went up against Kanter on April 5th, the All-Star big man dropped 22 points (9-of-15 from the field), 13 rebounds and nine assists.
Jokić’s season series against Portland is highlighted by his 40-point performance in mid-January. In that game, the 24-year-old dropped 40 points on 15-of-23 shooting, while he also grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out eight assists.
All indications are that Kanter won’t be able to contain Jokić in one-on-one defense, which will likely for Portland to send double-teams, similar to how San Antonio initially guarded Jokić in the first round. This should help Denver’s offense generate plenty of open 3-pointers, which if they continue to knock down at a high rate (36 percent in the first round), will allow their offense to thrive in this series.
On the other end of the floor, Jokić should have the size and strength to make things more difficult for Kanter. Jokić impressed with his defense against LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round and if he can continue to use his quick hands and size to bother Kanter, Denver should be able to operate defensively without having to double-team in the post.
2) Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum vs. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris
The series will likely come down to the play of Portland’s backcourt, which drives nearly all of their success, especially on the offensive end. Lillard and McCollum had very impressive performances against Oklahoma City in the first round and appear to be on a high coming into the second round.
Lillard averaged 33 points and six assists per game in the 4-1 series victory over the Thunder, while he also connected on 48.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Meanwhile McCollum provided secondary scoring and ball-handling to the tune of 24.4 points and four assists per game on 44.7 percent shooting from downtown.
While it would be easy to expect Lillard to have plenty of success against Denver, that certainly wasn’t the case throughout the regular season. Lillard averaged 21.3 points per game (significantly down from his season average of 25.8) while he shot just 37.1 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from three. Furthermore, when Lillard was guarded by Murray, Harris or Torrey Craig, he shot a combined 6-of-24 from the field. Expect Craig and Harris to get the majority of assignments on Lillard throughout the series. McCollum was also held in-check for the most part, as he averaged 20 points per game against Denver during the regular season.
Murray and Harris had solid performances against Portland in the regular season. Murray averaged 19 points and 5.3 assists per game but struggled with his efficiency (39.1 percent from the field). Harris was slightly more efficient, as he scored 17 points per game on 43 percent from the field). Of course, Harris’ best moment against Portland this season came in the form of a late go-ahead 3-pointer during the first game of the season series.
If Denver’s backcourt can limit the damage that Lillard and McCollum can do, it will go a long way in ensuring a Nuggets series victory.
3) The battle of the benches
An area in which the Nuggets should have an advantage is when the bench units are on the floor. Denver finished the regular season 13th in bench scoring, while Portland was a little behind, finishing 18th in the league in bench production. However, the disparity has grown during the playoffs, as the Trail Blazers have had the lowest-scoring bench in the entire postseason. While Portland’s bench only produced 18.8 points per game during the first round, Denver’s bench averaged 28.9 points per game in the seven-game series against San Antonio.
With Will Barton shifting to a bench role, Denver’s bench has offensive firepower to take advantage of Portland’s second unit. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has certainly enjoyed the burst that Barton had after his role changed.
“I think he’s handled it with dignity, I think he’s handled it with maturity,” Malone said. “How lucky am I to have guys like Will Barton, Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, be your bench unit?”
The Nuggets’ bench has been a consistent positive throughout the playoffs, while Portland’s bench was outscored in the first round, a theme that continued from the regular season. The strong bench play that Denver received in the first round was key to the series victory over San Antonio. Although depth isn’t usually regarded as a deciding factor in the playoffs, it could very well be the boost that the Nuggets need to advance over Portland.
1) The rebounding battle
This second-round series will certainly be impacted by the battle on the glass. Portland finished the regular season second in offensive rebound percentage and seventh in defensive rebound percentage. Meanwhile, the Nuggets led the league in offensive rebound percentage and finished just behind the Trail Blazers in defensive rebound percentage.
What allowed Portland to keep the regular season matchups close is the fact that they won the rebounding battle over Denver in all four games. Therefore, despite Lillard’s struggles and Denver’s hot shooting, two of the games were decided by just one point. The Spurs had some success on the boards against Denver in the first round, so the Nuggets must be prepared to limit Portland’s rebounding, especially on the offensive glass. Giving up second-chance opportunities to Lillard and McCollum is certainly not a recipe for success.
2) Control the 3-point line
Denver and Portland were similar teams when it came to the use of 3-pointers on offense. The Nuggets finished 16th in 3-pointers attempted per game, while Portland finished just behind them at 18th in attempts per game. Portland was a more accurate team, as it connected on 35.9 percent from three compared to 35.1 percent for Denver.
However, In the playoffs the two teams have been among the most accurate 3-point shooting teams in the postseason field. As mentioned earlier, Denver knocked down 36 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc, while Portland shot 40.5 percent from three in the first round.
When it comes to the defensive side of the floor, the two teams differ greatly when it comes to the 3-point line. Portland’s defense did an excellent job of preventing 3-point attempts, as they allowed the third-fewest attempts from beyond the arc during the regular season. On the other hand, the Nuggets ranked 21st in 3-point attempts allowed, with 34.4 percent of their opponent’s shot attempts coming from beyond the arc.
Despite the Trail Blazers’ focus on limiting the number of 3-point attempts, teams shot 36.6 percent on such shots against them in the regular season, which ranked 21st in the league. The Nuggets finished first in the league in opponent 3-point percentage at 34.4 percent. As mentioned earlier, Denver shot 38.4 percent from three against Portland this season, while the Trail Blazers only connected on 32.7 percent of their long-range attempts in the regular season series against the Nuggets.
A small difference in 3-point attempts and percentage could go a long way in deciding this series.
Potential X-factor: Paul Millsap
After being a primary focus on the defensive end against LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs, Paul Millsap finds himself in a different situation against Portland. The Trail Blazers are led almost exclusively by their backcourt, putting Millsap in more of a supporting role on the defensive end. While the playoff-tested veteran won’t be facing a six-time All-Star this series, he can’t simply ignore Al-Farouq Aminu on the offensive end.
Aminu had a very strong first-round, averaging 10.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while connecting on 40.9 percent of his 3-pointers. Aminu is a career 42.7 percent shooter from long range in the postseason and is capable of having a larger role on offense if necessary. In Portland’s 2018 first-round series, Aminu averaged 17.3 points and 10 rebounds per game. Aminu may not be the offensive talent that Aldridge is, but he presents a different play style that Millsap will have to adjust to.
In the regular season, over 47 percent of Aminu’s shot attempts were 3-pointers. That number jumped up to 50 percent in the first round, which means Millsap will have to guard out on the perimeter much more than he did against Aldridge and San Antonio. If Denver gets aggressive in its defensive scheme against Lillard and McCollum, role players such as Aminu will likely be forced to make additional plays and create scoring opportunities, and that is exactly when Millsap can impact the game defensively by shutting those down.
On the offensive end, Millsap had a lot of success in the season series against Portland, as he averaged 19.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while connecting on 63 percent from the field and 60 percent from downtown. When Aminu was matched up with the four-time All-Star, Millsap shot 50 percent from the field, as he has the strength to overmatch Aminu in the post. With Millsap not having to exert as much effort on the defensive end, he could certainly become an offensive focal point for Denver in this series.
Game 1 between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers will tip at 8:30 p.m. MT on Monday.