So, I definitely stole the format of this article from Joe Vardon of The Athletic. He does a great job bouncing around the league with this point-by-point format, and I implore you to check out his work on the NBA playoffs as it comes out.
There are many numbers to discuss while previewing the first round playoff series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. Some of them are covered here, but an infinite amount of additional statistics and data points have yet to be discussed. These 16 are how I will frame this particular article, but they by no means are the only pieces of data to reference. They will instead frame the conversation around what is found to be a competitive series that could be won by either team.
1. The Denver Nuggets lead the season series 2-1 against the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2020-21 season. The rosters for both teams have shifted drastically in each of the three matchups, but Nikola Jokić and Damian Lillard have played in all three matchups.
2. Since the Blazers bested the Nuggets in seven games during the 2019 NBA playoffs, the Nuggets have amassed a 5-2 record in head-to-head matchups. Again, there have been several iterations of this matchup, and both teams are mere variations of themselves from 2019 at this point.
3. Throughout his career, Nikola Jokić has averaged 19.0 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game in 10 head-to-head matchups against Jusuf Nurkić. The Blazers center has averaged 17.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game himself. Both Jokić and Nurkić have gotten the better of each other throughout their careers, though Jokić has elevated himself to a different tier of player in aggregate.
4. Nikola Jokić’s matchup stats when guarded by Jusuf Nurkić and Enes Kanter, courtesy of NBA.com:
- Guarded by Nurkić: 2 games, 11-of-16 on two-pointers, 1-of-8 on three-pointers, 6-of-7 on free throws; 31 points, five assists, four turnovers
- Guarded by Kanter: 3 games, 20-of-36 on two-pointers, 3-of-4 on three-pointers, 6-of-7 on free throws; 49 points, four assists, one turnover
It’s going to be interesting to see how much the Blazers let Jokić go 1-on-1 in the post versus how often they send double teams. There is no right course of action when guarding Jokić, but without a significant number of offensive weapons, the Nuggets may see Jokić doubled incessantly to prevent him from hurting the Blazers as a scorer.
5. Nurkić and Kanter have each had varied success against Jokić. Here are those matchups stats in reverse, with Jokić guarding each player on the defensive end:
- Guarding Nurkić: 2 games, 5-of-12 on two-pointers, 1-of-2 on three-pointers, 1-of-3 on free throws; 12 points, six assists, zero turnovers
- Guarding Kanter: 3 games, 6-of-7 on two-pointers, 0-of-0 on three-pointers, 0-of-0 on free throws; 12 points, zero assists, one turnover
The majority of Nurkić’s possessions against Jokić come as the roll man when Lillard is drawing a lot of attention. Nurkić has always had struggles finishing around the rim, but he remains a good passer in those situations. The majority of Kanter’s possessions against Jokić come as offensive rebounds. Jokić will have to be extra diligent getting back to Kanter and being a great rebounder in this series. 34.2% of Kanter’s scoring possessions this year have come on putbacks, and he averages 1.18 points per possession. He will be annoying but effective throughout the series.
6. On the other end of this star matchup is Damian Lillard. In three games against the Nuggets this season, Lillard averaged 23.0 points, 9.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 3.7 turnovers while shooting 43.9% from the field and 36.7% from three. The lower point and higher assist totals are most likely a reflection of the way the Nuggets like to guard Lillard. They will bring Jokić up the floor and pressure the ball out of Lillard’s hands as much as they can. That can lead to open shots for other players, but the goal is to prevent Lillard from scoring a high number of points as the most dangerous Blazers player on the floor. The Nuggets will likely experiment with different coverages during the playoff series.
7. Damian Lillard will likely be guarded by Facundo Campazzo for much of the series, and the Nuggets had success with Facu guarding Dame during the regular season, at least according to the numbers. When Lillard was guarded by Campazzo, Lillard shot 4-of-15 from the field, including 2-of-8 from three-point range and 2-of-2 from the free throw line.
The numbers say that, but it would be dangerous to assume a similar advantage in a playoff environment. Lillard is a gamer with plenty of experience attacking defenses in every which way. He missed a frequent amount of open shots against Facu, and I doubt he misses a similar proportion of those open shots in a playoff series.
8. CJ McCollum has averaged 19.0 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.0 assists while maintaining a 62.4 TS% against the Nuggets in two games this season. McCollum didn’t suit up for the first matchup. Nuggets fans know only too well how dangerous McCollum can be when left to his own devices. If the Nuggets have to choose between overcommitting to Lillard and overcommitting to McCollum, they will pick Lillard every time. That leaves McCollum with a more favorable matchup.
9. The midseason addition of Norman Powell to the Blazers starting lineup has helped Portland tremendously. Among all 13 five-man lineups in the NBA to accumulate 300 minutes together, the Blazers starting lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Robert Covington, and Nurkić ranks third with a +13.4 Net Rating in 370 minutes. That group is dangerous, and even if it doesn’t utilize Nurkić, the same lineup with Kanter at center has a +7.4 Net Rating in 86 minutes.
The Blazers have found a formula that works for them in the second half of the season. Their weakness has always been bench units when Lillard sits, but in the playoffs where minute totals are up for everyone, the Blazers will be able to play for their favorite lineups more frequently.
10. The Blazers have utilized an eight-man rotation of late, meaning that there are three bench players the Blazers have settled on as the high minute options heading into the playoffs: guard Anfernee Simons, forward Carmelo Anthony, and center Enes Kanter. All three players are capable offensively and struggle defensively, and the Blazers are asking a lot of Powell and Covington when the benches are out there.
The two most common lineups that include the three Blazers bench players include Lillard/Covington or McCollum/Powell. Both units have a positive net rating, with the Lillard, Simons, Anthony, Covington, Kanter lineup having played 64 minutes and possessing a +24.9 net rating. That includes an absurd 131.6 offensive rating.
11. It’s unclear who the Nuggets will field on their bench unit to counter the Blazers due to the uncertain status of Will Barton and PJ Dozier heading into the playoffs. Jokić will likely be on the floor for the bulk of the time that Lillard is out there with Kanter. Joining him will probably be JaMychal Green in the frontcourt and Monte Morris in the backcourt. Beyond that is a mystery. The Morris-Green-Jokić has played 182 minutes together and possesses a +11.3 net rating. Usually, they are surrounded with floor spacers on the wings though, and the Nuggets are decidedly short on players that can space the floor when Porter is sitting.
12. The bench has had several iterations for the Nuggets this season, and the biggest question marks surround the frontcourt pairings. JaMychal Green is likely to play, as is Paul Millsap. The two hybrid bigs give the Nuggets defense some switch-ability when matching up defensively against Anthony and Kanter.
The big question is whether JaVale McGee will see any time. He was brought in to match up with bigger centers while protecting the rim, and few centers are bigger than Nurkić and Kanter. Will Malone trust McGee to protect the rim in those situations over having the switching style afforded by Green and Millsap? Malone will almost certainly play around with this depending on what works and what doesn’t.
13. Speaking of Porter, my expectation is that Porter will anchor the bench lineups when Jokić finally sits down. Lineups featuring Porter and JaMychal Green without Jokić and Murray on the floor have played a total of 178 minutes this season, and the Nuggets have a +27.8 net rating in those minutes. For whatever reason, though lineups have found significant success, and the Nuggets will likely go back to that well when Lillard sits.
14. Michael Porter Jr. has certainly taken a star leap in his second season, but in order to affirm the beliefs about him and his immense shooting talent, he will have to prove it in the playoffs.
Porter finished the season averaging 19.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in 31.3 minutes per game. He shot 62.8% from two-point range and 44.5% from three-point range. Only one other first or second year player has ever matched those shooting splits in NBA history: Duncan Robinson.
Can Porter continue to remain efficient as a shooter with so much defensive attention placed on him? Can he get to his spots comfortably and convert on the looks that make him such a tantalizing star prospect? He has been to the playoffs before, even made an incredibly clutch shot in Game 5 against the Los Angeles Clippers. His defensive matchup won’t be Lou Williams this time around though. It will likely be Robert Covington and Norman Powell doing everything they can to batter and wear Porter down throughout the series. That’s the pressure Porter will have on him though: if he isn’t effective, it will leave Jokić as the sole high volume scorer on the Nuggets roster while also trying to be the lead playmaker.
The Nuggets need the best version of Porter they can possibly get.
15. The Nuggets are hoping that the addition of Aaron Gordon will help propel Porter and Jokić to success on both ends of the floor. With Gordon, Porter, and Jokić all on the floor at the same time, the Nuggets have a +10.8 net rating in 558 minutes this year, a significant sample size.
The Nuggets can match up with almost anybody with this trio on the floor, but it’s unclear whether the Blazers are an exception or not. The Blazers have two elite scoring guards in Lillard and McCollum and a shorter wing in Powell. The Nuggets traded away Gary Harris and R.J. Hampton to better match up with teams featuring big wings like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, and Dallas Mavericks. It’s possible that Harris would be a better matchup against the Blazers specifically.
Denver will have to utilize Gordon’s size properly in this matchup. He will start and likely guard Powell, and the Nuggets are going to find out quickly if they can defend with all three of Jokić, Porter, and Gordon on the floor against a speedy, perimeter-based Blazers team. If the answer is yes, Denver may roll in this series despite a weakness at guard. If the answer is no, the Nuggets will have to adjust quickly, potentially staggering the minutes of Porter and Gordon and going small with their bench as well.
16. Here are the minute totals all Nuggets guards have played against the Blazers this season:
- Jamal Murray - 38 minutes in one game
- Will Barton - 65 minutes in two games
- Monte Morris - 51 minutes in two games
- PJ Dozier - 25 minutes in one game
- Facundo Campazzo - 68 minutes in three games
- Austin Rivers - 70 minutes in four games (two for New York Knicks, two for Denver)
- Shaquille Harrison - 38 minutes in three games
- Markus Howard - 32 minutes in one game
That’s right: Austin Rivers has played the most total minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers this season. This is a concerning number if there ever was one: the Nuggets probably have no idea what to make of their guard rotation at this point with Murray definitely out and both Barton and Dozier likely out at the start of the series. Morris is likely coming off the bench to begin the series, meaning that Campazzo and Rivers are slated to open the series as starters in Game 1. That might change before it’s all said and done, but it remains concerning.
Can the Nuggets score enough points without their top guards? Can they match up defensively? Is just having Jokić and Porter enough?
Time will tell.