PORTLAND, Ore. — The first-round NBA playoff series between the third-seeded Denver Nuggets and sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers is one of the best the NBA has to offer as the playoffs begin this weekend. Portland and Denver tip off Game 1 in Denver on Saturday night.
The Nuggets and Blazers have established a rivalry over the past few years, partly because of the trade that brought Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland a few years ago and especially because of the epic seven-game Western Conference semifinal series in 2019. That series featured a classic four-overtime game and the Blazers' comeback victory in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference finals.
The two teams are back at it again. Which team has the advantage this year? Can the Blazers take down the higher-seeded Nuggets? That was the topic of conversation for KGW sports anchor Orlando Sanchez and digital producers Jared Cowley and Max Barr on this week's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast
Both teams finished strong
Let's establish first that the Denver Nuggets are a very good basketball team. They're banged up, there’s no denying that. The loss of shooting guard Jamal Murray can’t be understated. He’s their second-best player. But what the Nuggets have done since his injury has been very impressive. Since April 14, when Murray got hurt, the Nuggets finished the season 13-5. Those 13 wins were the third-most wins in the NBA during that stretch.
During those 18 games, Denver played tough opponents, too. Eleven of their 18 games were against teams with records of .500 or better. It’s not like Denver was just feasting on an easy schedule, which makes that 13-5 record and all the analytics behind it pop a little more, knowing they accomplished it without Murray and against good competition.
To show how close this series appears to be, let's look at what the Nuggets have done since April 14 (post Murray) and compare it to what the Blazers have done during the same time frame. Because Portland played well down the stretch, too, and they also did it against tough competition. Remember how 11 of the Nuggets’ final 18 games were against teams .500 or better? Portland played 12 of their final 18 against teams with .500 records or better.
If you remember, the Nuggets won 13 of their final 18, the third-most wins during that stretch. The Blazers went 11-7 in their final 18, the fourth-most wins during that time frame.
Here's a look at the analytics for both teams. All of this data is from the final 18 games of the season:
- The Nuggets’ offensive rating was 115.8. That ranks 8th in the NBA during that stretch. The Blazers’ offensive rating was 120.8. That ranks 1st.
- The Nuggets’ defensive rating was 110.8. That ranks 9th. The Blazers’ defensive rating was 113.2. That ranks 19th.
- The Nuggets’ net rating was +5, which ranks 7th. The Blazers’ net rating was +7.6, which ranks 3rd.
At home, the Nuggets were dominant, with a 7-1 record. On the road, they were good, at 6-4. At home, the Blazers were only OK with four wins and four losses. But on the road, the Blazers were awesome, with a 7-3 record.
If you remember, the road is where the Blazers really turned it around late in the season, specifically that six-game road trip when Portland went 5-1. So let's look at Portland’s analytics since that road trip, a 12-game stretch to close out the season that started April 27:
- The Blazers went 10-2, the most wins in the NBA during that stretch
- Their offensive rating was 124.5, which ranked 1st
- Their defensive rating was 111.6, which ranked 12th
- Their net rating was +12.9, which ranked 1st
At home — and it’s interesting that this coincided with fans getting back into the Moda Center — the Blazers finished 4-0. On the road, they were 6-2 in that final stretch of the season. Their offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating were almost identical whether they were playing at home or on the road. Basically, the Blazers had the best offense in the NBA, a near-Top 10 defense and the best net rating in the NBA over the final few weeks of the season.
It was even more impressive when you consider that the Blazers did it against very good competition. Nine of their final 12 games were against teams with records of .500 or better.
Will the Blazers' positive play late in the season carry over to the playoffs? Only time will tell. Here are four keys for the Blazers in this series:
Keys to a Blazers victory in this series
1: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum must be great, and Norman Powell has to be ready to make Denver pay for double teams
The good news is Lillard, McCollum and Powell all played great to end the season. In their final 12 games, here are their averages:
- Lillard: 30.3 points, 54.2% FG, 47.8% 3P
- McCollum: 22.7 points, 49.8% FG, 45.8% 3P
- Powell: 16.7 points, 43.9% FG, 40.7 3P
Powell does need to be ready to make the Nuggets pay and there's good reason to believe he will be. Powell is a career 38% shooter from 3 in the postseason and had some really big playoff moments with the Raptors. In five first-round series with Toronto, he shot 44% from 3. The guy has a nickname once the postseason begins — Playoff Powell — because he’s the kind of guy who has stepped up time and time again in the playoffs.
When the Nuggets blitz and trap Dame, which they will, and the ball ends up swinging to Powell, often in the corner, he’ll be ready. He’s shooting 45.8% on corner 3s. That’s awesome. Lillard hasn’t had a player like Powell as a third or fourth option to help him when teams focus their defense on him during the playoffs. Now Lillard has not only McCollum, but also a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Powell.
2: The Blazers need to be able to defend Jokic one-on-one and Jusuf Nurkic is the key to that
The reason teams want to be able to defend Nikola Jokic one on one is to try to make him a little less multi-dimensional. Once teams start sending double teams at Jokic, they may be unlocking his greatest strength, which is getting his less talented teammates easy looks. And that really unlocks Denver’s offense.
If the Blazers can make Jokic a little more one-dimensional, make him less of a facilitator and more of a scorer, it helps. He’s still the MVP this season, and he’s still going to be amazing in this series. Count on that. But if Portland can defend him straight up, they have a chance of reducing the damage he inflicts, at least a little bit.
And that's why it's so important that Jusuf Nurkic stays healthy during this series, stays out of foul trouble and controls his emotions. He needs to be on the court as much as possible to help counter Jokic. Just look at what happened this season in the games when Nurkic was able to defend Jokic this season vs. when backup center Enes Kanter was the primary defender. In the first game between the two teams, Nurkic was hurt and Jokic went off with 41 points. He shot 53% from the field and 50% from 3.
In the second regular-season game between the Blazers and Nuggets, with Nurkic defending him, Jokic had 25 points. He still shot 50% from the field but he missed five of six 3-pointers. In the final game of the regular season, Jokic only played the first half and he did put up 21 points, but while he shot 9 of 17 from the field, he missed all three of his 3s.
It’s not like Nurkic can stop Jokic. Not at all. But he can guard him better than many centers out there. He has the size and the quickness and the strength to guard him straight up. And that lets the rest of the Blazers’ defenders focus on their assignments.
3. The Blazers bench needs to at least trade baskets and keep Portland in games
One of the good things about the trade for Norman Powell is it allowed the Blazers to almost always have two of Lillard, McCollum or Powell on the floor. And that helps the bench units.
Portland's bench has been good since head coach Terry Stotts went to the eight-man rotation, with Carmelo Anthony, Enes Kanter and Anfernee Simons as the three reserves.
Since April 14, Anthony has been a high-volume, high-efficiency scorer, putting in 13.6 points while shooting 44.9% from the field and 48.8% from 3. Simons has scored 8.2 points per game and shot the ball well at 46.2% from the field and 45.3% from 3. And Kanter has been an efficient post scorer, averaging 8.6 points on 58.9% shooting, and a solid rebounder, pulling down 8.6 per game, including 2.8 offensive boards per game.
Those three aren't going to defend particularly well. But like Stotts said earlier this season, with those reserves, it’s not as much about their defense as it is the net score when they’re on the court.
And here’s the good news. Since April 14, that 3-man lineup of Melo, Kanter and Simons has a net rating of +15.9. Their offense has been dominant (129.7 offensive rating), more than enough to make up for a mediocre defensive rating (113.8). If the Blazers can mix those three with the right combination of starters, Portland can run out lineups that can hold serve when the starting lineup isn’t on the court.
4. Don't let Michael Porter Jr. arrive to his coming out party
Michael Porter Jr. is an incredible basketball player and keeps getting better. Since Murray was injured, Porter Jr. has taken on an even larger role in Denver’s offense and his stats have been very impressive. Since April 14, when Murray was hurt, Porter Jr. has averaged 23.5 points on 56% shooting from the field and 48.9% from 3 on 7.9 attempts per game.
He’s a really tough guard for the Blazers. Porter Jr. is 6-foot-10 and most likely, you’re going to see the 6-3 Norman Powell on him a lot. Powell’s 6-11 wingspan is helpful, but Porter Jr. is still going to be able to shoot over Powell or just about anyone the Blazers throw at him.
It will be interesting to see if Portland puts Robert Covington on Porter Jr. or if they put him on Aaron Gordon, who is less of an offensive threat and would allow Covington to roam on defense and do what he does best as a team defender.
I think the Blazers also just need to make Porter Jr. work on the other end of the court. He’s been a pretty good defensive player this season. But he will, at times, be forced to guard Lillard, McCollum or Powell and they have to make it hard for him on defense by stretching the floor and attacking him off the dribble.
The question is whether what we’ve seen from the Blazers the past few weeks is real. If this is the default level this team can play at with everyone healthy after everyone has really acclimated to playing together, this team is very dangerous. But is the Blazers' defense we saw over the final 12 games of the season, a borderline Top 10 defense, what we can expect from this team in the playoffs as long as they stay healthy? Portland’s offense is the best in the NBA. The Blazers will put up points. If they can play Top 10 to Top 12 defense, Portland can and will win this series.
That said, before the defense improved so much in the final 12 games, it was only OK before that, even with Nurkic back and Powell in the starting lineup. Since March 26, when Nurkic and Powell entered the starting lineup, the Blazers’ defense improved, from a 117.0 defensive rating to a 112.7 defensive rating. That's a big improvement, but that 117.0 mark still ranked just 21st in the NBA. If the Blazers' playoff defense is more like a Top-20 defense than a Top-10 unit, Jokic and Denver will be able to take advantage of that.
Here are the series predictions from each member of KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
KGW sports anchor Orlando Sanchez: Blazers in 7
KGW digital producer Max Barr: Blazers in 7
KGW digital producer Jared Cowley: Nuggets in 7
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