Denver begins their playoff hunt with an all too familiar Trailblazer’s squad. Nugget fans recall the last time these two faced off in a playoff series that resulted in a Game 7 loss at home. Revenge is just around the corner and their first crack at it comes on Saturday for game one.
The Nuggets will hold better home-court advantage throughout the series. Ball Arena is allowing 40% capacity while the Moda Center is authorizing just 10%. This could prove a huge edge for Denver, but Portland is a battle-tested bunch that will not fold to that pressure.
The brightest stars shine in the playoffs and this series is a great chance for Jokic and Lillard to help cement their legendary status. This is a crucial series for Damian Lillard. Outsiders continue to pressure him about moving to another team to capture a ring. He is one of the game’s all-time great players, but some feel his legacy is not complete until he collects a championship or at least a Final’s appearance.
On the other hand, Nikola Jokic is competing in his third playoffs entering his prime with an anticipated 2021 MVP trophy. He totaled 26.4 PPG, 8.3 assists, and 10.8 rebounds this season and played all 72 games. The last five MVPs who completed a full season were Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and most recently Kobe Bryant in 2008.
Both stars not only impact the game but dominate it, but they do so in very different ways. Lillard does most of his scoring from the perimeter, while Jokic does his work in the paint and mid-range. Jokic is the more efficient player because he takes more efficient shots, but Lillard is the more lethal scorer because he can pile threes in bunches.
Both are some of the most clutch players in the league, but Lillard might be the most. “Dame time” is not just a moniker people bestowed on him because he hit a couple impressive buzzer-beaters. As time tics off the clock in the fourth he gets hotter. It is not irregular or volatile, he does it night in and night out. You won’t see him make many faces or flex after he does it either because he knows it’s routine.
Jokic is a top-five caliber clutch player in the league as well. In my opinion, he is definitely top five, but there are others who can make a good case. His efficient scoring helps in that regard, but he’s also made some phenomenal, tough shots including fadeaway buzzer-beaters. He reminds me of Tim Duncan in the clutch. Just give it to him in the post when you need a bucket, and if he doesn’t make it it’s not going to happen twice in a row. Bottom line, when either of these players shoots the ball in crunch time, you expect it to go in.
This section is designed to analyze both player’s skillsets and what we can expect to see in this series.
Lillard: Although he hit a lull towards some of the latter half of the season, he ended it in typical all-star fashion. In his last ten games, he averaged 32 PPG and 8 assists. That effort helped Portland avoid the play-in tournament and launched them to the first-round series against Denver.
There are very few in the league, but when he passes half-court, you must crowd him because any spot on the court is subject to his sniper abilities. In 2021, he averaged 52.8% 3PT FGA and 42.8 % PTS 3PT meaning nearly 53% of his shots come from deep and nearly 43% of his points come from deep. Those are the highest marks of his career, and he has always been known for his three-point shooting. In an era where three balls are the most prevalent, he is changing and excelling with the times better than anybody not named Steph Curry.
More specifically, he loves the step-back three. People exalt James Harden for having the best step-back in the league and for good reason, but Dame’s step-back is just as lethal. He averages 37% on his step-back threes which is slightly less than Harden’s at 38%.
This is an incredible play but he makes it look routine. He cooks in isolation situations and in crunch time even more. His quick feet mirror a boxer in the ring and by the time he steps back, there is nothing the defender can do but put a hand up and shrug to the coach when he makes it.
Here’s another clip in a similar situation with the same result. He’s matched up with Lu Dort who is one of the best young defenders in the NBA, but nobody is a match for this move. Look at how much space he creates by stepping back what looks to be six feet in a matter of milliseconds. Dort’s hand is as close to Lillard as possible without fouling, but nothing stops his laser focus of the rim.
He’s also a much better passer than people give him credit for. He might not exhibit the flashy passes like Jokic and LeBron but he recognizes and creates for the open man as good as most guards in the league. Lillard has never dipped below five assists per game for a season. His lowest was 5.6 in 2013-2014.
For Denver’s sake, his playoff assist numbers are not as prolific as the regular season. He averaged 4 assists per game in last year’s playoffs, but you have to think some of that is because he is more aggressive during the playoffs. Although that is around his playoff norm, in the 2019 series against Denver, he averaged 6.6 assists over seven games which was the highest of his playoff career.
Jokic: There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about Jokic’s MVP caliber season. His production has been rivaled by very few in history and we are watching a legend before our eyes.
Compared to Lillard, he dominates the game in more of a team fashion. That is not to say Lillard doesn’t play team basketball, but often Portland’s best chance at winning is when Lillard shoots the rock so he does what wins them games. Some say Jokic is passive because he gives it up to his teammates more than people would like. I say he is analytical. He analyzes the defense, recognizes the open man, and trusts his teammates to make the shot. It doesn’t always work out, but this season he blended his passing with aggressiveness and that’s why he’s produced an MVP season.
Most of his shots come eight feet and in for which he attempted 684 of those eclipsing 65%. His next most frequent shot selections are those 8-16 feet (267 FGA, 52%) and 24+ feet (234 FGA 39%).
His go-to shots along with layups and normal jumpers are hooks, floaters, fadeaways, and tip shots. He shoots 64% on hooks, 62% on tip shots, 53% on floaters, and 46% on fadeaways.
He also likes turnaround shots whether it’s the turnaround fade, hook, or jump shot. His most efficient turnaround is the hook at which he shoots 63%.
Here is one of, if not, the most important shot of his career and Denver as a franchise. On the brink of elimination with 30 seconds left, he displays his extraordinary footwork and swishes the hook shot against arguably the best defender in the league.
Here is his patented Sombor shuffle move. He has two defenders draped over him contesting the jumper and yet again his high arching jumper proves as pure as it gets. He is renowned for being slow and steady but in a box, he has very quick feet for a man his size.
Jokic is going to have the advantage inside against the Portland bigs. Nurkic is a physical defender but no match for Jokic, and Kanter is as unproductive a defender we have in the NBA. They will double him but their help defenders to double are not as talented defensively so they will have to mix up their looks to confuse Jokic because they’re not likely to do it on skill alone.
This series has the foundation to be a great one. Both teams know each other too well, so there won’t be a ton of surprises, and many of the games could be decided in the final minute or seconds. Role players are essential to every playoff series but without star play by Jokic or Lillard, both teams will struggle.
Two players with nearly polar opposite skill sets match up to decide the fate of their season. Will Lillard’s three-ball spread throughout the lineup and propel the Blazers yet again against Denver? Or will Jokic mosey around and toy Portland to multiple triple-doubles? The 3-ball versus the 2-ball. Explosive versus efficient. Spectacle versus genius. Denver versus Portland Saturday night at 8:30 PM MT.