The Portland Trail Blazers came into their playoff series with the Denver Nuggets the underdog, if only by a slim margin. The injuries to the Denver roster have given the Blazers an edge even with MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic leading the Nuggets attack. However, Portland is still held back by an aggressively awful defense, being one of only three teams in the last fifteen years to make the playoffs despite a bottom-three defense in NBA rank.
Game one showcased some of Portland’s strengths and minimized their weaknesses in a 123–109 win to take the home-court advantage away from the Mile High City.
Takeaway Number One: Winning the Three Point War
Portland put on a firework show from behind the line, with Anfernee Simons (4-of-5), Damian Lillard (5-of-12), Robert Covington (2-of-4), and the much-maligned Carmelo Anthony (4-of-8) lighting the way to the Blazers victory. Conversely, Denver shot just 11-of-36 from deep.
While Portland was 6th in the NBA in the regular season in three-point shooting, Simons, Anthony, and Covington shot well above their paygrade. Meanwhile, the 8th ranked Denver three-point onslaught fell short despite some open looks for Austin Rivers and especially Michael Porter Jr., who shot just 1-of-10 from deep. Denver is counting on Porter to be a key scorer in the absence of Jamal Murray and Will Barton due to injury, and while Porter was dominant inside the three-point line, scoring 25 points, his poor shooting from outside hurt the Nuggets.
The Blazers should be happy that the players around Lillard and CJ McCollum played effectively from deep. They will need that to continue their push.
Takeaway Number Two: The Battle for MVP
In the first half, there was no stopping Jokic, who battered the Portland interior en route to 22 points before the break. The Blazers adjusted and clamped down on the big man inside in the second half. Despite this, Jokic still had 34 points and 15 rebounds, asserting his will throughout the game even without his star point guard.
On the other side, Lillard started slow, especially his cuts to the rim. Porter and Aaron Gordon were waiting multiple times, rejecting four shots at the rim and frustrating the Blazers megastar. Lillard turned that around in the second half with a combination of key shots and excellent passing, finishing with 34 points and 13 assists. His +25 rating led all players. Lillard was a front-runner for MVP before injuries slowed his roll, but the fiery competitor showed his full playoff form.
Takeaway Number Three: The Elephant in the Room
The number one issue holding the Blazers back all season was their defense, which at one point was on pace for among the worst in modern NBA history. Despite late-season improvements, Portland finished in the bottom ten in opponent’s three-point percentage (38.5), opponent’s field goal percentage (45.3), Steals (6.9), Turnovers Forced (10.8), and Points Allowed (116.1).
This game did little to remove those fears. Despite a bad day from three, Denver still shot 50.5% from the field overall, outrebounded the Blazers 48-39, and only committed eight turnovers. All of this despite the Nuggets missing two of their key scorers and a strong bench contributor in PJ Dozier. On an average shooting day for Portland, this is enough the down the squad from the Rose City. The Blazers cannot afford to relax despite the win. There is a long road ahead of them if they want to advance past the Nuggets.