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Preview: The Denver Nuggets have a chance to return to the NBA Western Conference Finals

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Damian Lillard and an angry Portland crowd stand in their way

Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The first time the Denver Nuggets made it to the Western Conference finals was back in 1978 under head coach Larry Brown. It was the team’s second year in the NBA and they were led by three of the best players to ever represent the city of Denver - David Thompson, Dan Issel, and Bobby Jones.

The second time was in 1985 at the height of the “stiffs” era. Doug Moe was coaching Nuggets legends Alex English and Fat Lever on one of the league’s most fast-paced and exciting teams. The Nuggets were on the big stage, squaring off with the showtime Los Angeles while Larry Bird’s Celtics faced Julius Irving’s Philadelphia 76ers.

The third time the Nuggets made the Western Conference finals was in 2009. George Karl was in his 4th year at the helm and Carmelo Anthony was smack dab in the middle of his prime. Chauncey Billups had an NBA championship under his belt and was poised to help return the Nuggets toward prominence alongside Kenyon Martin and Nene.

That’s the entire list of Nuggets teams to ever make it to the third round of the NBA playoffs.

You almost get the entire “NBA” history of the Nuggets in those three teams (they played nine seasons in the ABA before joining the NBA in 1976). You get the three most iconic coaches in Brown, Moe, and Karl. You get the three most iconic scorers in Thompson, English, and Melo. You get the three most iconic Denver Nuggets uniforms in the royal blue clipart pickaxe of the 70s, the rainbow skyline of the 80s, and the shiny powder blue of the 2000s.

As the Denver Nuggets head to Portland to face a hungry and desperate Trail Blazers team that is facing elimination, on the line for the Nuggets is a chance to etch their names into the franchise record books by becoming just the 4th team in franchise history to advance to the NBA Western Conference finals.

A win, and Michael Malone will find himself alongside Brown, Moe, and Karl on the team’s head coaching Mt. Rushmore. At just 24 years old, Nikola Jokic might officially and undeniably place his name in the running for greatest Nuggets player of all time. And those royal blue “Mile High City” jerseys? Those will become synonymous with one of the best teams to ever play at 5280.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (3-2) at Portland Trail Blazers (2-3)

When: 8:30 PM MST

Where: Moda Center. Portland, OR.

How to watch/listen: TNT, TNTdrama.com, the TNT app, Altitude TV, AltitudeNOW.com, the AltitudeNOW app and Altitude Radio 92.5

Rival Blog: Blazer’s Edge

Untitled

Position Nuggets Blazers Advantage
Position Nuggets Blazers Advantage
PG Jamal Murray Damian Lillard Blazers
SG Gary Harris C.J. McCollum Blazers
SF Torrey Craig Maurice Harkless Even
PF Paul Millsap Al Farouq Aminu Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Enes Kanter Nuggets
Bench Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Will Barton, Mason Plumlee Seth Curry, Zach Collins, Rodney Hood, Evan Turner Nuggets

Injuries: Michael Porter Jr. (OUT), Jusuf Nurkic (OUT)

Key matchup: The bench

The Denver Nuggets bench unit has been a disappointment for most of this post-season. Monte Morris has struggled with the size and athleticism that teams are throwing at him in the pick-and-roll and has yet to hit a single three-point shot after making 94 of them in the regular season on a team-best 41% three-point shooting. Will Barton is shooting only slightly better at just 28% from behind the arc and Mason Plumlee has not been able to allow Jokic more than a few short minutes of rest at a time before the team needs him back into the game.

And yet, you could make the case that Denver’s bench won the game for the Nuggets in game 5. In the first half alone, all four of the team’s rotation bench players played at least 7:43 and was a net positive with Barton leading the way as a +18. The Nuggets as a team were up 18 and in position for the starters, who have been pretty dominant in the series so far, to place the game out of reach in the third quarter.

The Nuggets may have discovered a way to attack through the post with that unit, playing through Paul Millsap who has a size and skill advantage against Portland’s bench bigs. The Nuggets ran fewer Morris-Plumlee PnRs and relied more heavily on Millsap to orchestrate down on the block. A repeat performance in game 6 will almost certainly spell a Nuggets win.

Key number: 110

As in, 110 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions). In the two Nuggets losses, the team scored just 102 points and 90 points respectively by the end of regulation and finished with an ORTG of 109.6 and 95.7. In their three wins, they’ve scored 121, 116, and 124 and had an averaged ORTG of 123.2.

This is an offensive series. The Nuggets seemed to have figured something out against the Blazers over the last three games while the Blazers have not found an adjustment that has been able to provide reliable scoring beyond Lillard and CJ McCollum. Rodney Hood has had his moments, as has Enes Kanter. But both guys have struggled to consistently put up 20+ point games. If the Nuggets can bring their shooting, ball-movement, and finishing at the rim with them to Moda Center on Thursday night, the Blazers might not have enough firepower to keep up, even if Lillard and McCollum are knocking down their shots.

Opening thoughts: Have the Nuggets learned their lesson?

The biggest storyline of these playoffs for this young Denver Nuggets team has been the impressive growth of the team game by game. In just 12 games, this team has experienced almost all that the playoffs have to offer. They’ve come from behind, they’ve won on the road, they’ve suffered bad shooting nights, tough whistles, and hostile crowds.

They’ve also blown a chance to close out a desperate team on the road in a game 6.

Against the San Antonio Spurs, Nikola Jokic was the only Nuggets player who showed up with the intensity, calm, and determination to close out the series on the road in game 6. Denver’s bench scored just 13 points in that game and the Nuggets were blown out, 120-103. As a result, the Nuggets found themselves in an uncomfortably close game 7 back at Pepsi Center.

Have they learned their lesson? Will they approach game 6 with the appropriate amount of focus and the ability to execute under pressure? Or will we all be back at Pepsi Center on Sunday hoping that the ball bounces our way? We’ll find out shortly. But the Nuggets have matured a lot over the last three weeks. I expect that they’ll give the Blazers their best shot on Thursday night and put themselves in position to make franchise history.

Poll

What word best describes your emotional state heading into game 6

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Confident
    (285 votes)
  • 34%
    Calm
    (292 votes)
  • 29%
    Nervous
    (253 votes)
  • 2%
    Panicked
    (24 votes)
854 votes total Vote Now