Game 3 Preview: Denver Nuggets look to take series advantage vs. Portland

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Following a Game 1 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets knew that a greater sense of urgency and a few tweaks to the game plan were needed to even up the series Monday night.

A swarming and aggressive Nuggets defense forced 21 Portland turnovers, which led to 21 points for Denver’s offense. Following a scorching first-half from Damian Lillard, Aaron Gordon requested to defend Portland’s star guard and was able to use his length and strength to disrupt Lillard’s flow.

MORE: Takeaways from Game 2

On the offensive end, increased player and ball movement led to 29 assists and a 53.5 percent shooting performance. Nikola Jokić continued to lead the way with 38 points (on 15-of-20 shooting from the field), but Denver had six players finish in double-figures.

As the series shifts to Portland Thursday for Game 3, all eyes will be on how Terry Stotts and the Trail Blazers counter some of Denver’s Game 2 adjustments.

Projected starters: Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić

Injury report:

JAMAL MURRAY – LEFT ACL SURGERY. OUT

WILL BARTON III – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. OUT.

P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.

TUNE-IN: 8:30 p.m. MT, NBATV and Altitude TV, 950AM

Key matchup: Aaron Gordon vs. Damian Lillard

This matchup is specifically focused on the defensive end of the floor, where Gordon should continue to receive opportunities to defend Lillard following the success Denver saw with that matchup Monday night.

Over the first two games, Lillard shot 2-of-7 when directly defended by Gordon, which is by far his lowest field-goal percentage against the defenders Denver has thrown at the 30-year-old guard throughout the series.

Gordon’s combination of strength and length make him a more viable option to prevent Lillard from getting off clean looks, while Denver’s major trade deadline acquisition can provide some physicality when Portland looks to use screens to free Lillard.

However, look for Denver to continue to provide different looks for Lillard to navigate, including Campazzo and Shaquille Harrison. Portland will also likely use Lillard more in off-ball actions or use more double-drag actions (where two-consecutive ball screens are set in transition or semi-transition) to force Gordon to fight over more screens to stick with Lillard.

Can Denver’s bench build on Game 2 success?

In Game 1, Portland’s second unit received quality performances from the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons to gain an advantage when the starters rested.

However, the story reversed Monday night, as Denver’s second unit built an advantage on the backs of strong performances from Monte Morris (12 points and seven assists) and Paul Millsap (15 points and seven rebounds).

As mentioned earlier, look for Shaquille Harrison to continue to see more action following his disruptive defensive performance in Game 2. With Morris being able to play more minutes moving forward as the series progresses, Denver’s second-unit has a steady guard to lead the offense, while Millsap and JaMychal Green provide versatility in the frontcourt on both ends of the floor.

In a series this competitive, any slight advantage created by the second unit can go a long way in deciding a game or even the series.

Continue to attack the basket

Through the first two games of this series, both teams have had plenty of success on the offensive end of the floor.

When specifically looking at the Nuggets’ attack, a lot of that success can be credited to their play inside the paint. Denver has attempted 35 percent of its total shot attempts within four feet of the rim and has shot 78.9 percent on those attempts, which ranks third among the 16 playoff teams.

This has continued a trend from the regular season for both teams. Denver shot 67.4 percent at the rim in the regular season, the fifth-highest percentage in the league. Meanwhile, Portland’s defense gave up plenty of shot attempts inside the paint and allowed teams to connect on 64.3 percent of those attempts in the regular season.

Given that Portland will likely have the advantage from beyond the arc throughout the series, Denver must be aggressive in getting inside the paint for easy buckets or kick-out opportunities for 3-point shooters.

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