The Denver Nuggets won an exciting Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night. But that celebration can’t last long - it’s business time again. For just the second time this century, the Denver Nuggets are in the second round of the playoffs and will now be looking to build on the success already accomplished this season. The next chapter of the 2018-19 Denver Nuggets’ story is centered on the Portland Trail Blazers, and it begins tonight.
Denver went 3-1 against Portland in the regular season and leads the head-to-head 6-2 ever since Jusuf Nurkic wished the Nuggets a happy summer in 2017, but the reality is that it’s a 0-0 series against a division rival. Anything is on the table. It will be a battle of two underappreciated star players in Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard, two great head coaches in Michael Malone and Terry Stotts, and two deserving fanbases which have suffered in their own unique ways over the years. The only piece really missing from this matchup on the court is Nurkic, whose rivalry and pettiness with Jokic and the Nuggets is well known.
A trip to the Western Conference Finals is on the line. Which team will gain the upper hand in Game 1?
Who: Portland Trail Blazers (0-0) at Denver Nuggets (0-0)
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
When: 8:30 PM MT
How to watch: TNT
Rival blog: Blazer’s Edge
Injury Report: Enes Kanter - questionable (shoulder)
Key Matchups: Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, the Bench
Game 1 will provide answers to multiple key matchups as the two teams initially feel each other out.
Without Jusuf Nurkic (and possibly Enes Kanter), the Blazers will have a hard time against Nikola Jokic, who averaged 25.7-9.7-8.0 against Portland this season. Jokic would feast regardless of who is defending him, but if it’s Zach Collins or Meyers Leonard it will be a long series for Portland. Likewise, Damian Lillard (who is averaging 33 ppg and 48% from three in the playoffs) will present a challenge for Denver. Gary Harris will almost certainly get that assignment. His defense on Derrick White in round one was phenomenal, but Lillard is arguably a top three point guard playing the best basketball of his career right now. Denver often forced Lillard to give up the ball in the regular season; in the playoffs, limiting him in any way possible will be crucial.
Where Denver can really set itself apart is on the bench. On paper, the Nuggets bench should be favored by a mile. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley will look to build on their small successes in the first round, but it’s Will Barton and Mason Plumlee who need redemption. Barton struggled for the vast majority of the series and Plumlee was borderline unplayable against San Antonio. The style of play in this series should be more favorable to both, and if they even marginally improve in this round it will make a world of difference for the Nuggets.
Key thing to watch: Denver’s three-point shooting
The Nuggets were not a horrible three-point shooting team in the regular season (35.1%) but there were times in the series against San Antonio that would indicate otherwise. Game 6 and Game 7 were especially concerning as Denver collectively shot just 4-for-22 from deep in the final two games, which isn’t a positive trend heading into the second round.
The Trail Blazers aren’t a grind-it-out, mid-range shooting team like the Spurs. This series could quickly turn into a showcase of offensive firepower in which Denver would have an advantage, but only if shots are falling from behind the arc. The Nuggets are at their absolute best when the defense is kept honest and Jokic can create scoring opportunities for the team.
Opening Thought: No pressure
Denver has checked off the next two items on the ‘Master Plan’ list: make the playoffs and win a series. Portland has become the darling of the NBA and is receiving unheralded national recognition after its first round series win. The Nuggets shouldn’t be feeling any pressure at this point. No matter the outcome of this series they can look any detractor in the eye and tell’em to eat crow. The Nuggets are still playing the long game, and anything else from here is just icing on the cake.
That said, this is the NBA playoffs. Go win this thing, Denver.