Well dear readers, your fighting Portland Trail Blazers are very much alive in this very postseason. It’s round two, so of course the shots are bigger, the fouls are harder, the meltdowns are meltdown-ier, and every possession simply matters more. Both teams are battling hard for their first sighting in the conference finals in quite some time (10 years for Denver, 19 for Portland), and whoever prevails will have earned it and then some.
While the Oklahoma City Thunder are no slouch and proved a quality opponent for Portland in the opening round, it became clear as the series progressed that they simply lacked the shooters and depth that Portland boasts, and home court played a larger factor than many assumed. Now that the Trail Blazers are facing a more athletic and healthy squad in Denver with quality depth, it has been a challenge so far for a banged up and shorthanded Portland team, but their starting five is as good as anyone else’s so as long as their stars show up, they have a shot.
With the series split, the outcome of game three is crucial for both teams as the next four games are split between venues, so whoever wins tonight will have a series lead and reclaim home court advantage. Whoever loses tonight will have to find a way to win at least one game on the road if they want to win the series.
So what will we see from Portland in game three tonight, and can they claim the advantage in this must win game? Fireside Sports co-hosts Bryant Knox (BK) and Casey Mabbott (CM) are here to answer those thrilling questions and more, and to reassure the Rip City Faithful that their team will not go quietly into the night, they will not vanquish without a fight!
Without further ado, here is the playoff semi-finals lightning round:
1. Portland returns home tonight for game three, and the series tied 1-1. How crucial is Trail Blazers victory tonight?
(BK) The Trail Blazers had a .780 winning percentage at home this season; that number dropped to .512 on the road. That tells me a couple things: For starters, the Blazers are downright elite within the comfy confines of the Moda Center. The Blazers were one of just four teams to win at least 32 games at home—the Denver Nuggets being one of the others. While a .500-plus winning percentage on the road is nothing to scoff at, the Nugs were a league-best 34-7 at home this year. Portland can get it done away from the Pacific Northwest, but taking care of business in front of your own crowd is crucial when you’re set to visit the NBA’s toughest road venue at least once more.
(CM) Long answer – Portland is a perfect 3-0 at home in the playoffs, and just 2-2 on the road. If they can take game three on their home court, it opens up the whole series for their taking, whereas going down 2-1 and needing a win Sunday to go back to Denver even up is a lot of pressure. It would be ideal for the team and their fans for Portland to take a 3-1 lead going back to Denver, since they could let game five go Denver’s way just to get back home and close out the series here in game six. Of course that brings with it the risk that you have to play game seven in Denver, but we’ll cross that bridge if we get to it. Short answer – Portland doesn’t have to win tonight, but it would be really really cool of them to get the win.
2. Game one was won by Denver in a high scoring but sloppy game with high shooting percentages and high turnovers, game two was won by Portland in a physical defensive battle with low shooting percentages and low scoring. What kind of game should we expect tonight and who wins?
(BK) The perfect combination of both—here’s why: Once a series gets physical it rarely calms down. Rarely do you hear of players getting less sick of seeing the other guys’ faces. But the Nuggets are most definitely going to shoot better from the perimeter in Game 3 and for the rest of the series. Like the last series, Portland didn’t force Denver into bad looks; the rich and creamy Nuggets just failed to connect on open looks. That means games will be higher scoring and likely faster paced, but with all the added elements of two teams growing to dislike one another. In other words: Great basketball is coming, and right now, that favors the Blazers, who get Game 3.
(CM) I think we’ll see a more balanced approach from both teams, and Portland winning one on their home court. Game one was too sloppy, 18 turnovers won’t get the job done in any situations. Both teams enjoyed a fast paced and high scoring game one, but Portland’s supporting cast just didn’t keep up. Game two was like watching 1980’s basketball, very physical and no shot going uncontested. Neither of these teams are going to shock the world and become great defensive teams overnight, but both are very capable and have shown great effort. If Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum can get their shots falling consistently, it opens up the rest of the team and the whole game changes. If one or both struggle, it bogs everything down and we saw the worst version of that last year. Lillard and Denver’s superstar center won’t have off nights often, so it’s good that Portland found a way to win when he had one, but expect both players to bounce back in game three. Every star can be contained for one game, but they will adjust and find ways to get their production. I expect the rest of the series to get chippier and chippier, but the shots will start falling and that’s great entertainment for all of us.
3. The supporting cast showed up big time for Portland in game two, but their stars struggled. The opposite was true in game one, will we see a complete team performance tonight?
(BK) I fully expect to get back to the Dame/CJ/Kanter show. Specifically, we should all set our watches to Lillard Time. The truth is, Dame doesn’t have the chip on his shoulder in this one going up against Russell Westbrook and Paul George. On paper, that’s a huge advantage; in reality, the Oakland kid who has made a career out of proving people wrong is now universally recognized as the MVP of the postseason and the pressure to perform has seemingly disappeared—as has the media attention. But one bad game should be enough to kick him back into gear. Lillard should get back to form on Friday, CJ will be right there behind him, and Kanter will be his usual efficient self at the rim. Whatever else the team gets is bonus, even if it’s not a lot.
(CM) I really hope so. Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard clearly wanted to make a point to get their supporting cast involved early in game two after an atrocious showing in game one, but that may have caused an unexpected side effect of the rest of the team playing off tempo in a physical battle. Now that both sides know how hard the other is fighting and what type of game to expect, players should be able to be looser on given plays and not force so many shots we’d rather they didn’t take. Lillard shouldn’t be forcing shots just to avoid putting the ball in the hands of lesser shooters but he shouldn’t be passing if he thinks the open guy is only open because his shot is off tonight. It’s a fine line and a very hard job but there’s no one else I would trust to lead this team to playoff glory right now.
4. In year’s past, Portland may have folded in game two after such a tough opening game loss. How impressive was their tough performance in game two to even the series?
(BK) Truth be told, I think even this year they might have folded if that loss had come against the Golden State Warriors. That’s not to say this team is mentally soft—I just think it’s easier to adjust against a team like Denver than it is a team like Golden State or quite possibly even the Milwaukee Bucks. But I slightly digress…the turnaround in Game 2 was big, mostly because of the aforementioned adjustments. Getting the victory helps them avoid falling into a hole that historically very few teams escape, but it showed that Terry Stotts has the chops to coach his way out of a deficit. The Blazers double-teamed Nikola Jokic to moderate if not much success and he put his role players in the right position when his star went quiet. That’s a huge deal because should Portland drop Game 3, there’s no need to assume the Blazers are toast. Stotts has this group ready—even on nights when Dame can’t carry the load.
(CM) It was really inspiring to see them claw their way back like that. After seeing them struggle with playoff teams the last few years and play so sloppy in game one, it was really great to see them hit back and take away ground from their opponent. Denver knows they have a legitimate fight on their hands and will have to adjust to a wild and angry beast knocking down their door. I’ll be honest, if Portland had lost game two I was very concerned the series was over, right now they have me thinking they not only can win it, but probably will especially if they take game three tonight and head in to Sunday with a lead. Even if they drop game three, as long as they head back to Denver with a tie, I’ll be confident. Anything less than that and it’s a crap shoot.
5. Denver superstar center Nikola Jokic has been a tough assignment for Portland’s bigs (and everyone else in the league), do you feel Enes Kanter and Zach Collins can keep up with him?
(BK) On defense? Not a chance. The double team was a good start in Game 2, but the Nuggets are going to shoot better, forcing Portland to make a very difficult decision: Double The Joker or stay on your man. Quite frankly, the blueprint at this juncture points to the former. It worked, so why go away from it in Game 3? But eventually, the Nuggets are going to make their shots. When they do, the Blazers have to decide if they want their fate to be in shooters’ hands or Jokic’s hands. Here’s a pro tip: Never…ever…let Jokic control your fate as an opponent if you don’t have to. The Blazers don’t have a true answer for him, but the double team has to be Option A until proven ineffective.
(CM) I don’t see why not. Granted a lot has to go their way for Kanter and Collins to stay out of foul trouble and to keep Jokic on his heels but even if they only keep up with him every other game it should do enough to stifle Denver’s offense if their best player is having trouble. We haven’t seen a complete game from Portland yet this series and when it finally happens my hope is it will be too much for Denver’s streaky offense to keep up with. Then it will be a matter of containing Jokic the other games and forcing his teammates to save the day, which they haven’t proven they are capable of.