Reflection in the moment of an emotional roller coaster of a Game 7 is often unwise.
Three months later, though there may still be pain in discussing the Portland Trail Blazers upsetting the Denver Nuggets on their home floor, I believe it to be wise to go back, understand how Denver’s season really ended, and evaluate what Denver can do to alter their championship strategy going forward. The Nuggets have already discussed this internally and are way ahead of me, having made their offseason decisions in no small part because of the events on May 12th. However, there is the benefit of hindsight in publicly discussing what exactly occurred, ranging from the loss, to Denver’s offseason events, to evaluating where Denver is right now and whether they can prevent the same thing from happening again.
This is the Game 7 retrospective.
Final Score: Blazers 100, Nuggets 96
Top 3 Blazers scorers: CJ McCollum (37), Evan Turner (14), Damian Lillard (13)
Top 3 Nuggets scorers: Nikola Jokic (29), Jamal Murray (17), Gary Harris (15)
Right off the bat, it’s easy to spot what went wrong for the Nuggets: CJ McCollum went off. He scored 37 points on 17/29 from the field, missing 12 total shots and making both of his free throws. He was unstoppable in the mid range and Denver had nobody that could stay in front of him.
Here’s how the NBA website tracked the opposing player he scored against:
Harris - 8/12 FG, 16 points
Barton - 5/6 FG, 13 points
Craig - 3/6 FG, 6 points
Millsap - 1/1 FG, 2 points
Most of the damage McCollum did in this game came against Harris, even though Craig took the assignment late in the fourth quarter. I believe the Millsap basket was charged in error and should be credited to Murray, but the larger point still stands. Denver threw Gary Harris at McCollum for most of the game, and Harris struggled mightily. Barton took on the assignment when Craig sat and Harris shifted over to Lillard, and Barton struggled too.
Was this a case of the right player getting hot at the right time? Probably. McCollum, as the highlights above show, was on fire for the entire game, and even though the Blazers only scrapped together 100 points as a team, it was enough to beat Denver, especially when it counted. This will stick out in the minds of many Nuggets fans though, and while they should be better than the Blazers in future seasons, running into them again in a playoff series will be difficult because of the ability for Lillard or McCollum to go off at any moment.
Jokic showed up but struggled in the closing minutes while Murray struggled
Through the first three quarters of the game, Jokic scored 21 points on 8/16 from the field, 2/3 from three, and 3/4 from the free throw line. It was a strong scoring performance, but the Nuggets were only up one point and needed something extra from their superstar in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t for lack of trying, but the shots just didn’t drop. Jokic shot 3/10 in the final frame, missed all three of his three-pointers, and missed a key free throw in the closing seconds to keep the game close.
No one in the world can blame Jokic for missing an opportunity here. He wasn’t exactly the only one. On the other side, Lillard, known for his clutch performances, shot 3/17 for the entire game and gave way to McCollum in the closing minutes because he could. Jokic didn’t have a similar teammate to shoulder the responsibility as Murray finished the game shooting 4/18. Jokic and Murray had carried Denver’s offense for almost the entire playoff run. They were the top two Denver scorers in nine of the 14 playoff games and all but once for the entire Portland series. Both needed to show up to close the game. Jokic had eight points in the fourth quarter. Murray had six. The rest of the team had 10 total.
This is where internal development will help the Nuggets the most. As Jokic enters his prime, he will have more moments where he can fully carry the team as a scorer. He only had two assists in this game, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The team as a whole missed a lot of shots, and unfortunately, there will be games like that while the Nuggets roster is so young. It may take the group awhile to age out of having those dreadful performances. Murray should also continue to take steps forward and continue learning how to impact the game when his shot isn’t falling. He had five assists in the game, but all five went to Jokic, a player who can also create for himself. Finding ways to get others involved in the offense will help prevent the collective shooting well from running dry.
Denver shot dreadfully in critical playoff moments and it cost them
Making just two of 19 attempted three-pointers sort of speaks for itself here. Only Jokic made any perimeter shots, and when the center is the best floor spacer on the team, the spacing is generally compromised.
Denver simply can’t rely on Jokic to be the only shooter out there in critical moments. Murray will improve, but he must also take continual steps to improve as a pull-up three-point shooter. That improvement spirals into more free opportunities for Jokic on the short roll and more kick-out passes to shooters for open looks. Denver will need to hit those with more frequency to be a championship caliber team. The Nuggets were 17th in three-point percentage during the 2018-19 regular season. “Are they better than that normally?” is the question to ask and determine if Denver can overcome these awful shooting draughts in future playoff appearances.
The Nuggets will add Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant, one rookie believed to be an elite shooter and a veteran forward with an up-and-down shooting resume. If the Nuggets really are closer to an average shooting team rather than an elite squad, it will be difficult to build a contender around Jokic’s style.
Zach Collins had four blocks in this game and was a plus-5 in a four-point win. Two of his blocks came on Paul Millsap, who struggled to generate elevation around the rim to avoid being blocked by a more athletic player. Three of Collins’ blocks came with Mason Plumlee on the floor, one of the biggest detriments of having a non-floor spacer at center.
Denver didn’t have a choice with their rotations in the playoffs last year. Malone only trusted nine players, and the strengths and weaknesses of those nine players shaped what Denver could be during the postseason. Adding Jerami Grant could seriously help Denver in a playoff matchup, especially if opposing defenses trust him to hit corner threes at a high clip. Plumlee dragged Collins right in front of Millsap’s driving lane on the play above, but if Collins were attached to a shooter in the corner, Millsap would have an open shot at the rim.
Denver didn’t have a counter for the lineups featuring Lillard, McCollum, and Collins that featured Evan Turner at the 4 and either Rodney Hood or Seth Curry at the 3. Whenever the Blazers spaced Denver out, the Nuggets couldn’t answer on the perimeter. Millsap in particular was put in a difficult position. Tasked with usually defending traditional bigs or a stretch 4, guarding Turner with his abilities as a playmaker proved to be a difficult task mobility wise. On the other end, Turner was one of the biggest reasons Millsap struggled offensively, as he was unable to battle in the post quite the same way he had earlier in the series.
Again, Jerami Grant could help solve some of these problems as an additional forward sized body to throw at the opposition. With the mobility to stay in front of Turner as a ball handler and the complementary game to negate a surprisingly good post defender from impacting the game, Grant fundamentally changes how Denver operates on both ends that could help the Nuggets improve statistically.
For the Nuggets fans that want to bench Torrey Craig heading into the 2019-20 season, a series like this is the exact wrong time to do so. While he will never be a positive impact on offense until he hits his jump shots at a consistent clip, Craig’s defense helped shut down Damian Lillard in a Game 7. That doesn’t happen by accident, and even though Denver also supported Craig with a wall of defenders behind him, he did an excellent job of making Lillard uncomfortable throughout the game. Lillard only made one shot all game while guarded by Craig: a step back mid range jumper that was heavily contested in the middle of the second quarter.
That stands out as highly impactful, but benching Craig replaces him with a worse defender at small forward, causing Gary Harris to take over the tough perimeter defense assignments once again and stress about that every night. Having Craig in the lineup certainly has its merits, especially if he can knock down jumpers and even develop some handling and playmaking. His experience with the Team USA Select Team this summer should help in all of those aspects, and as long as Murray, Harris, and Jokic are shouldering the bulk of the offensive load, there may be room for a defensive specialist in the lineup.
Nuggets fans were certainly upset when the Blazers upset Denver on their home floor in the Game 7 thriller, and that sparked many radical discussions about the core ideology of the Nuggets. Some of these discussions were justified. Some can be discarded purely because of Denver’s young roster. How the Nuggets decided to react this offseason helps Nuggets fans understand how Denver views the situation. Minimal changes. One upgrade here, a rookie addition there. The Nuggets are mostly bringing back the same group and hoping for a better result. Based on how the final game unfolded, I believe that to be wise. There are still ways for Denver to improve their roster, things they can and probably should do at some point. However, this offseason probably wasn’t the correct time to address every issue.
That time is coming soon. There will be roster turnover before and during next year’s free agency period given so many expiring contracts. At that point, Denver must choose how they will formulate the best roster they can for as long as they can.
In the meantime, the Nuggets hope they solved enough problems this offseason to get past the Blazers the next time the two teams match up in a playoff series. We will see if they’re right.