The first round of the NBA playoffs have come and gone, and this week we will get to watch the conference semis as the Finals approach in just four short weeks. Some teams took care of business swiftly and have had a little rest waiting for their second round opponents to be decided, while others had to fight it out to earn their spot moving forward.
One such team is the Portland Trail Blazers who didn’t slow down one bit after starting center Jusuf Nurkic was tragically injured just before the playoffs began. Portland handily put away the first round against the Oklahoma City Thunder in just 5 games, and have been waiting for the winner of the Denver Nuggets vs San Antonio Spurs series to be determined.
The Nuggets and Spurs series was much more thrilling as the two teams battled it out over 7 games with the young Nuggets ultimately overcoming the experienced coaching staff and playoff veterans in San Antonio. Denver battled with inconsistency, poor defense, and a general lack of experience but seemed to mature before our eyes to advance to the next round.
Denver and Portland fans have had a bitter rivalry with one another ever since Nurkic was traded to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee back in 2017. Both players have worked out nicely for their respective teams so it looks to be water under the bridge, but for the fans, the series will be the culmination of which team is best once and for all now that both teams are in the playoffs.
This next match-up begins quickly starting tomorrow at 10:30 Eastern, so let’s look at three things to watch for heading into this series.
Jokic vs Lillard
Nikola Jokic is the clear leader of the Nuggets while Damian Lillard has long been the leader in Portland. These two players play different positions, but it’s clear that they both are crucial to the success of their respective organizations.
In the last 5 games, Lillard has averaged 33 points, 6 assists, and 4.4 rebounds in around 40 minutes per game. Against Denver in four games during the regular season Lillard brought in 21.3 points, 7 assists, and 3.8 rebounds. In contrast, Jokic brought in 23.1 points per game in the first round along with 9.1 assists, and 12.1 rebounds nearly averaging a triple double for the series. Against Portland Jokic averaged 25.7 points, 9.7 assists and 8 rebounds per game with the Nuggets winning all four of their regular season games over the Trail Blazers.
What makes Lillard so effective for Portland is his ability to score. He’s a skilled and experienced facilitator, but it’s important for him to be able to get in and score the ball as much as possible. Jokic on the other hand is much more effective if he’s in the position of facilitation–getting the ball to his teammates who are in position to score.
So how can each team prepare to handle the series stars?
We will want to watch to see if the Nuggets keep Torrey Craig in the starting lineup along with Gary Harris. This may be an effective strategy to allow them team up on defense to keep Lillard’s shooting at bay. The Trail Blazers will need to find a way to guard Jokic if they hope to prevent the Nuggets offense from being effective. Enes Kanter has proven a solid substitute for Nurkic for now, and his experience may prove difficult for Jokic to overcome.
Whatever the approach, the effectiveness of Lillard and Jokic will be what the series hinges on for each organization.
Weary Nuggets vs Rested Trail Blazers
The Nuggets had a 7-game series against the San Antonio Spurs while the Trail Blazers only had to play 5 games in order to put their first round behind them. Portland played their last game on Tuesday of last week so they’ve will have had 5 solid days of rest and practice heading in to face the Nuggets. The Nuggets will only have had a one day break heading into Monday night’s game, and they spent the entire first series fighting like hell to win.
While most might think that it’s a good thing for the Trail Blazers to be rested for as long as they have been, I actually think it could work against them. While the time off will have certainly provided them with the recuperation they need to be fresh and ready, sometimes that time off can lead to teams letting their guard down. This could especially be a factor because the Trail Blazers had a fairly easy time sending the Thunder packing.
I’ve often said that the team who is just coming off of a fight will be a little more fierce than the ones who have been waiting around to play. It’s quite possible that the Nuggets will be gassed heading into round 2, but I happen to think they’ll come in ready to scrap like they’ve had to do in the last 7 games.
Use of Depth
In the playoffs, the bench doesn’t come into play as much as teams typically rely on a 7-8 man rotation. The Trail Blazers have adopted the traditional approach and relied heavily on the dynamic duo of Lillard and CJ McCollum to carry the lion’s share of the work load for the team. With just one less win than the Nuggets overall this year, this approach seems to be their best bet as everyone plays their role well while making smaller, but solid contributions to the game.
While not completely planned, the Nuggets have had to rely heavily on their depth, often letting their bench shoulder the burden of turning games around toward a win. Coach Mike Malone even made the decision to change the starting lineup and bring Will Barton off the bench in favor of Craig who has proven a little more reliable in the post season.
In the first round this technique worked well, but as competition grows more fierce in the higher rounds of the playoffs this may not be the best move. Unfortunately, the Nuggets don’t have a ton of options so it looks like they will have to press on with utilizing the depth they have to get the job done. It panned out for them in the regular season so perhaps they’ll be able to remain successful with this somewhat unique approach.
I will say that I think this series will also go 7 games, but I’m going to bet on the Nuggets overall. Given that they beat Portland all four times they played them this season BEFORE Portland lost Nurkic, I think Denver will be able to be able to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in over a decade.
May the best team win!