What a performance by the Denver Nuggets.
After an exhausting and mentally taxing Game 7 just 48 hours ago, it would have been reasonable for the them to give less than 100% effort. Not so. Every single player contributed in his own way and Denver turned a shootout into a solid 121-113 Game 1 win.
Nikola Jokic was exceptional, putting up 37 points on just 18 shots, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. His aggressiveness in the second half broke the game open. Jamal Murray was in his bag (23 points) and Paul Millsap manhandled his way to 19 points of his own.
For the Blazers, Damian Lillard continued his torrid scoring streak with 39 points. Nearly all of those came on easy layups in the pick and roll, of which Enes Kanter (26 points, 7 rebounds) was a also a beneficiary. Gary Harris held CJ McCollum to just 16 points, and off the Portland bench only Rodney Hood came to play. He had 17 points and gave Denver some heartburn.
In the end, it came down to Portland not having a way stop Nikola Jokic. He was an MVP tonight, and now Denver holds a nice 1-0 lead in the series.
Pick and roll defense was nonexistent tonight
Neither team had an answer to the opposing pick and roll. Portland put Jokic in the worst positions possible by dragging him high above the arc, forcing a switch and leaving him one-on-one against either Dame or CJ. As you can imagine, it did not go well. And it did not go well when the roll man (usually Enes Kanter) also scored more often than not.
Fortunately for Denver, the usual tandem of Jokic-Murray/Murray-Jokic was unstoppable. Murray had the ball on a string and routinely hit Joker for an easy layup on the roll, a pick-and-pop three or could tee off for a three of his own. Whenever Dame got going, this was Denver’s answer every time.
Denver’s front court took advantage
The glaring hole on Portland’s roster in this series is the front court and it showed. In an interesting bit of game theory, rather than have Nikola Jokic work the post on Enes Kanter the Nuggets looked to really exploit Paul Millsap on Al-Farouq Aminu. It worked. Millsap put on his hard hat and went to town for 17 points in the first half alone, finishing with 19 points overall and 6 rebounds. His effort really energized Denver and kept them in the game in the early going.
Jokic was far and away the best (offensive) player on the floor. Lillard scored more points, but Jokic had a much more positive impact. At times he looked absolutely exhausted, but he worked the DHOs and screens for most of the game, and in the third quarter took matters into his own hands on Kanter and Meyers Leonard. Portland had absolutely no response.
Even Mason Plumlee played well, after being perhaps the biggest liability against San Antonio. Plumlee played his own game around the rim and did a nice job cleaning the glass and garnering second chance points.
This series will be amazing
Ask any national media member and this is probably the “worst” of the four semifinal series (sidenote: that is the wrong take). But man, Game 1 did not disappoint. Even as Denver pulled away in the second half, it never felt like the lead was safe. Both Lillard and McCollum can go off at any moment, and Jamal Murray and Jokic can do the same for Denver. The Nuggets came away with the win tonight, but both teams will need to make serious defensive adjustments to pull through. And if not, that’s okay. These high scoring games are fun.