After a first-round matchup that featured heroics, sharp shooting, extremely physical play, 1990s-level taunting, and more beef than a cattle ranch, the Portland Trail Blazers are taking on the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals.
We know how Portland got here, riding on the back of Damian Lillard (33-4-6, 48% from three-point range … and that’s not a typo) to a five-game stomping of the Oklahoma City Thunder. That series was Apex Lillard at his absolute finest, as good as we’ll see him—or most anyone—ever play in a seven-game series. Game 5 in particular was a performance that will be highlighted in his Hall of Fame induction; dropping a 50-burger AND the series-ending shot is the kind of crap schlubs like me dreamed about doing in our driveways. This dude got to do it in an actual playoff game. Unreal.
I had an inkling this playoffs would be different for Lillard, but I admit to underestimating how much of an impact he would have, and overestimating both Paul George and the OKC defense. It’s safe to say that no defense is going to completely stop Dame now. He faced down the Thunder’s traps in Games 4 and 5, and crushed them to the point that Steven Adams was played off the floor. Turns out that no matter how athletic you may be, seven-footers not named Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis are ill-equipped to defend Lillard 35 feet from the basket.
I did have the series going five games, I just picked the wrong team. I’ve spent the last couple weeks doing penance.
As for the young Nuggets, they had to slog through a seven-game slugfest with the San Antonio Spurs, trading haymakers and blowouts, trying to cobble together enough support around their All-Star (and likely All-NBA) center, Nikola Jokic. They got there in Game 7 thanks to a Jamal Murray jumper and a Spurs brainfart on Saturday, and they have to turn around and play a rested Portland team on Monday, though the Blazers do have injury issues.
I also admit that I wasn’t sold on Denver, and I’m still not sure about them. Jokic is doing God’s work, with two triple-doubles and a 43-point, 12-rebound, nine-assist effort, and he’s gotten much more aggressive looking for his own shot as the playoffs have progressed. After taking just nine shots in Game 1 (one of his triple-doubles was in this game), he took fewer than 14 just once more.
Who else besides the Joker is going to step up, and counterbalance CJ McCollum? That’s the question for the Nuggs, one they’ll have to answer if they want to get back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in a decade.
Some more thoughts:
Enes Kanter’s shoulder injury is a big problem.Even fully healthy, Kanter isn’t equipped to stop Jokic, or even slow him down. What he is/was is a big body to throw at him, just like Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. Jokic, like Lillard, is going to play 40+ minutes per game; keeping a semi-fresh body on him is critical, especially since Jokic operates on all three levels of the offense.
Kanter is going to try to play through it, which is very admirable—and might do more harm than good, both to his body and to his prospects in free agency this summer. His offensive skill would have been great in this series—either Jokic defends him and expends energy on that end of the court, or Kanter gets to bully a semi-washed Paul Millsap—but that shoulder may severely limit his ability to score. Still, 20 minutes of positional rebounding will help limit those offensive rebounds Denver has been piling up, and hopefully Kanter can do that.
Lillard and Jokic are both going to have a HUGE series.It’s no shocker that two supremely talented basketball players are going to play pretty well in a playoff series, but these two find themselves in very, very favorable matchups individually.
We went over some of the Blazers’ issues at center just above, but it goes beyond the 5 spot when talking about defending the Serbian Walton. His passing acumen is second to none among true centers in today’s NBA, he easily pushed around LaMarcus Aldridge on the boards, and he can shoot the three-pointer at league-average rates. The 3-ball is a wrinkle that makes him the offensive force that he is; unlike with Joel Embiid, it’s not a shot the Joker launches as a gimmick or when he’s too tired to post up. It’s a real weapon, and it’s damned demoralizing when a team shuts down the post game and the passing lanes, only to have this Pillsbury Doughboy MFer pop to the arc and swish an open three.
Since Kanter is limited, Collins is foul-happy, and Meyers is Meyers, Jokic should look to continue his assertive streak.
As for Lillard, if the Thunder’s “elite” defense couldn’t stop him, just how the hell are the Nuggets going to? I mean, Russell Westbrook was barking in his face. Dennis Schroder was hugging his butt. Terrance Ferguson was biting his ankles. And George was in his jersey. It didn’t matter one whit.
I’d imagine Torrey Craig will try to slow Dame down a bit, but as long as the picks land on his defender, Lillard will present Denver’s defense with a Hobson’s choice every time he has the ball. Have the big man play up on him, he blows by the galoot like he did with Adams about 1500 times. Have the big drop back, Lillard gets enough space to jack a three (unless Craig fights through the screen enough to get back on him, something the Thunder didn’t do enough of). Switch, and Lillard will either put the 5 in an isolation, or get his big in the post with Craig, or catch the athletic Leonard and Collins on a roll to the rack. Tough choices are what true superstars always present defenses, and Lillard and Jokic have acted the part this postseason.
Is Jamal Murray truly ready for stardom?Murray iced Game 7 with the kind of huge shot that makes careers and establishes the kind of confidence that never goes away, but he just turned 22 two months ago. He’s still an NBA whelp going through the growing pains of the playoffs, and his defense is laughably bad. Derrick White of the Spurs made Murray look like a bad meme on defense, and Lillard and McCollum are much more talented than White.
His offense came and went as well, and Denver’s chances for victory depend on him shooting well. Whenever Murray shot better than 40% from the field, the Nuggets won—and whenever he shot under 40%, they’ve lost, and badly.
Stardom is all about consistency as well as explosiveness, the ability to impact the game positively even when your shot isn’t going down. Gary Harris (who is shooting 46% from three) and Will Barton also have to step up big time, but at least Harris can defend a little bit, and Barton is going to be VERY motivated against his old team. Neither of them can create a shot like Murray can, and his two-man game with Jokic has been Sparta-kicking defenses all year long. Getting to that consistently, and squeezing points from it, is necessary for Denver.
As the series goes on, I expect Terry Stotts to tell Lillard to hunt for Murray in pick-and-rolls if the Nuggs try to hide him on Al-Farouq Aminu. (Mo Harkless is going to be hanging out at the dunker’s spot, and I’m sure Denver coach Mike Malone is having nightmares of Harkless stuffing putbacks on top of Murray.) If Murray’s defense gives up more points than he gets on offense, Denver has the proverbial snowball’s chance to win this series. Kid’s gonna have to D up if he wants the big bucks and the high status his talent and pedigree says he should get.
Portland’s forwards had an incredible series against OKC, and it needs to continue against Denver.Aminu is shooting 40% from three on 4.4 attempts per game, and Harkless is defending and dunking like a madman. Both are averaging double-digits in points. With the disappearance of Evan Turner, and Seth Curry and Rodney Hood both having issues (Hood is shooting very poorly, Curry isn’t shooting enough), it’ll probably be on Chief and Mo to continue doing the bulk of the supporting work behind the Blazers’ backcourt. Some offense from Collins or Leonard would be welcome, too.
Monday, April 29: @ Denver, 7:30 PM, TNT
Wednesday, May 1: @ Denver, 6:00 PM, TNT
Friday, May 3: @ Portland, 7:30 PM, ESPN
Sunday, May 5: @ Portland, 4:00 PM, TNT
*Tuesday, May 7: @ Denver, TBD, TNT
*Thursday, May 9: @ Portland, TBD, ESPN
*Sunday, May 12: @ Denver, TBD, ESPN
Prediction: Portland in six.