Game 4 Preview: Denver Nuggets look to take control of series vs. Trail Blazers
Nothing about this 2020-21 season has been ordinary for the Denver Nuggets.
Following the shortest offseason in NBA history, several mid-season changes to the rotation, and a plethora of injuries to key members of the backcourt, Denver continues to find ways to win, led by surprising performances from unsung heroes.
In Game 3 Thursday, that was Austin Rivers, who dropped 16 points in the fourth quarter to go along with Nikola Jokić’s 36-point, 11-rebound performance to lead the Nuggets to a 120-115 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
All five of Denver’s starters finished in double-figures, and the Nuggets shot lights out (20-of-38) from beyond the arc in the thrilling win. On the other end, Portland struggled from downtown (31.1 percent) and couldn’t maintain a consistent scoring effort throughout the game.
However, this series continues to be incredibly close, with a few jump shots potentially deciding each contest. Game 4 will likely be no exception, with Portland desperate to avoid a 3-1 deficit.
Projected starters: Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokić
JAMAL MURRAY – LEFT ACL SURGERY. OUT
WILL BARTON III – RIGHT HAMSTRING STRAIN. OUT.
P.J. DOZIER – RIGHT ADDUCTOR STRAIN. OUT.
TUNE-IN: 2 p.m. MT, TNT and Altitude TV, 92.5FM
Key matchup: Austin Rivers vs. C.J. McCollum
All eyes have been on Damian Lillard throughout the first three games of the series, and rightly so with the All-NBA candidate averaging 37.7 points and 9.3 assists per game on 43.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc in the series.
However, McCollum has flown under the radar a bit given his consistency over the past week. The 29-year-old guard has averaged 21.3 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from downtown in his 38.6 minutes per contest. However, his scoring is at its lowest since the 2015-16 playoffs, and McCollum is only averaging 2.7 assists per game.
However, as Denver’s defense continues to focus on containing Lillard, McCollum is certainly capable of taking over a game himself. Enter Austin Rivers.
Not only is it key that Rivers builds off his impressive Game 3 to provide additional scoring threats alongside Jokić and Michael Porter Jr., but Rivers will continue to spell McCollum on the defensive end, which Denver has seen success from during the first three games of the series.
According to the NBA’s tracking data, McCollum has shot 1-of-9 from the field when guarded directly by Rivers in this series. Rivers has been the primary defender on McCollum throughout the series, so look for those two to continue to go at each other Saturday afternoon.
Can the Nuggets get Porter Jr. going?
Following a 25-point performance in the Game 1 loss, Porter Jr. has scored below his regular-season average of 19 points per game in each of the past two contests, including a 15-point game Thursday.
The 22-year-old was in foul trouble Thursday, which hurt in his search to find a rhythm within the offense, but Denver would love nothing more than a breakout performance Saturday from their dynamic forward.
Porter Jr.’s overall numbers in the series haven’t strayed far from his regular-season performance, as he is averaging 19.3 points and six rebounds per game on 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc. However, for a player that averaged 22.3 points per game after the All-Star break, there is room to grow for Porter Jr.’s offensive contributions as the series progresses.
The second-unit battle
In Game 3, Portland head coach Terry Stotts elected to limit Enes Kanter’s minutes, instead going to some small-ball lineups with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Carmelo Anthony at center in the second half, especially when Jusuf Nurkić fouled out.
It will be interesting to see if Stotts sticks with this rotation change, which would set up some interesting battles between the second units for both teams, as Denver has continued to roll with the JaMychal Green/Paul Millsap backup frontcourt in smaller lineups.
In Game 3, Denver received 24 bench points compared to 19 for Portland. Monte Morris continues to be the leader of the second unit for the Nuggets, while Carmelo Anthony receives the most minutes coming off Portland’s bench.
In Game 3, Denver was able to take control of the game late in the first quarter as Michael Malone went to some of his backups, but with this series continuing to be so close, any slight advantage on the second unit could go a long way in deciding a game.