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Roundtable: previewing Nuggets and Trail Blazers round one matchup

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

What matchup are you watching the closest during this series?

Tommy Knowlton (@TommyKnow303): Michael Porter Jr versus Robert Covington. MPJ is the X-factor for Denver in this series. The Nuggets need him to score about 25 every game to keep up with an excellent Portland offense. This matchup is one of the reasons why the Blazers added Covington in the off-season and put him at the four to guard nontraditional power forwards. His calling card has always been defense but if you’re not careful he can step out and make the occasional three. This matchup should work in Porter’s favor because he is more talented a scorer than Covington is a defender but make no mistake about it, Covington will get physical with Mike. So a crucial part of this series is how MPJ responds to the Blazer’s physicality.

Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): Facundo Campazzo versus Damian Lillard. I think this series boils down to how well Lillard plays and whether or not the Nuggets can contain him. Campazzo has done a pretty solid job on Lillard in their previous matchups this season, but it’s still too early to tell whether that’s the norm or not. In some cases, Lillard has just been off in games where he’s played the Nuggets, which is a trend that will hopefully continue in the playoffs. If it doesn't, the Nuggets could be in trouble unless Campazzo can find a way to slow down the Trail Blazers star player.

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): Aaron Gordon versus Norman Powell. The Nuggets and Blazers each added a key piece during the middle of the season to bolster their starting lineups. The Blazers solidified their offense around Damian Lillard by adding another perimeter weapon, whole the Nuggets solidified their defense with a 6’8” big, athletic wing that can rebound and guard. Those two may or may not guard each other throughout the series, but how they assist their star counterparts will go a long way toward figuring out which team will win the series. If Gordon gets the better of Powell, the Nuggets will be in a good spot.

Gage Bridgford: (@GbridgfordNFL): Austin Rivers versus C.J. McCollum is the matchup I’m watching. Facu will be tasked with Lillard, but someone has to check McCollum which will be Rivers unless Monte Morris gets the starting spot. If Facu is forcing the ball out of Lillard’s hands, McCollum has the ability to take over a game if he’s given a few open shots to get himself rolling. Rivers has been a welcome addition to the team, and this is the type of series that he can really make his mark.

If Denver wins this series, it will be because they dominated what area of the game?

Knowlton: It will be because they dominated the glass. I have full confidence in Denver’s ability to score in the paint against this team, so that is expected for me. What I am anticipating is hard nose, physical play out of Nurkic and Kanter to fight for every single offensive and defensive rebound. They’re 4th in the league in contested rebounds at 15.3 a game, so boxing out and guard rebounding will be essential to keeping this team off the glass.

Ewing: If the Nuggets can dominate the paint, they are going to be extremely successful in this series. It should be no problem seeing the Nuggets have future MVP Nikola Jokic to take care of things down low. Not allowing players like Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter to get into a rhythm will be huge and winning the rebounding battle will limit Portland’s second chance point opportunities.

Blackburn: I agree with Brandon. The Nuggets dominating the paint will go a long way toward dominating the series, and it starts with Denver’s front line establishing physical dominance over the Blazers front line on the interior. Nurkic and Kanter will be physical, and Robert Covington has been an excellent help defender in the paint for a long, long time. The Nuggets still have to win there, because it will be unlikely that they outscore the Blazers from the three-point line with how the Blazers are oriented offensively.

Bridgford: With the other three guys going with the paint and rebounding area, I’m going to the outside. If Denver can hold Lillard and McCollum somewhat in check, with just average guard play on offense, they could blow Portland out. Without Jamal Murray, the team doesn’t have that extra scoring punch they normally would. If the group of Campazzo, Morris, Rivers and whoever else gets minutes can bring average-level minutes, they could make a big statement in Round one.

Outside of Damian Lillard, who is the biggest threat to Denver’s chances on Portland?

Knowlton: Without a doubt it is CJ McCollum. CJ was the MVP of that 2019 playoff series against Denver, and if he does that again the Nuggets are in serious trouble. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, CJ is a better player than he was in 2019 since he added a consistent, effective three-ball to his game. You have to expect he is going to get 24 a night, and if you hold him under that it is a success, but if he creeps into the 30’s Denver better match that with 30+ points from one or two of their guys as well.

Ewing: It has to be CJ McCollum. His ability to create and get a bucket any time Portland needs one is huge and it’s what ultimately led to the Nuggets demise just a couple seasons ago. McCollum came up clutch a number of times when these teams met in the Western Conference Semifinals and I wouldn't put it past him to do that again. Even though he missed a fair amount of games this year due to injury, McCollum still averaged 23.1 point per game and shot over 40 percent from three. He could definitely be the one to make or break this series for either team.

Blackburn: McCollum is definitely the biggest threat. He has almost reached that threshold where it’s expected that he contributes at least 23 to 25 a night on efficient shooting. If the Nuggets can prevent him from having any 30-point games, that would go a long way in containing the rest of the group around Lillard. If McCollum goes off too many times, Denver will most certainly lose the series.

Bridgford: Again, I could go with McCollum, but, just to change things up a little, let’s go with Powell. In his short time with Portland, Powell shoots nearly 40 percent from 3-point range in wins compared to around 32 percent in losses. When he gets hot, he’s the type of player that can quickly put up 12 to 15 points without needing the ball in his hands a lot. He can catch the ball and hoist it up without even watching it go in when he’s rolling. Denver doesn’t have the shooters to keep up if all three of Powell, Lillard and McCollum are all hot, so they have to make sure at least one of them stays quiet.

Who’s the biggest X-Factor for Denver in this series?

Knowlton: I said it at the top I think think it is Michael Porter Jr., but for the sake of avoiding redundancy I will choose Aaron Gordon here. Denver gave up some proven, talented assets to get Gordon and this is his moment to demonstrate his significance. We know he is a great defender, and his matchups with Powell and probably CJ might be the most important defensive matchups in the series. With a healthy Nugget roster, they would not need Gordon to score 15-18 points a game, but in this series they need that. Denver will have the advantage in the paint and Gordon is an effective paint scorer, so the Nuggets will have to feed him in the post and he will have to capitalize.

Ewing: Michael Porter Jr. because if he plays well, I don't see how the Nuggets lose this series. In his five games against the Trail Blazers this season, Porter has averaged 14.2 points and shot 48 percent from beyond the arc. Portland is going to stick Robert Covington on Porter to try and slow him down and that is a matchup MPJ has to win if the Nuggets want to be successful.

Blackburn: Facundo Campazzo’s outside shooting. The Nuggets need as many made outside shots as they can get around Nikola Jokić operating on the interior, and there aren’t a ton of candidates that I feel super positive about outside of Porter. If there’s one thing we’ve heard from fans in Argentina, it’s that Playoff Facu is a different animal. He’s going to have to be effective defensively, but he also has to shoot efficiently. If the Nuggets get enough games where he makes multiple three-pointers, then the rest of the series will fall into place. If Facu turns into a non-shooter, life becomes that much more difficult for Jokić offensively.

Bridgford: Morris is the player that’s going to be overlooked because he’s not in the starting lineup, but that is exactly why he matters so much to this team’s chances. Denver’s bench has been questionable at best for the last several months. A major factor of that has been the absence of Morris who has played in just 11 of a possible 35 games since March 12th. His ability to run the offense and handle the ball is something the second unit doesn’t really have, and, while he might not be the best player on defense, his calm demeanor settles the rest of the group down and should make them more efficient.

Prediction: Who wins the series, and in how many games?

Knowlton: Nuggets in 7. I was very close to picking Portland because of their offensive firepower compared to Denver’s, but I think they have the best player in this series and I believe Facu Campazzo will make Lillard struggle for a couple of games.

Ewing: Nuggets in 5. I think the Nuggets steal one on the road in Portland and win every game at Ball Arena. Hopefully for the Nuggets sake this series doesn't go seven games so they are able to rest up and get ready to make a push for their first title.

Blackburn: Nuggets in 7. The longer this series goes, the more it favors Denver. The Nuggets are still trying to figure out their rotation and chemistry, and if Will Barton and/or PJ Dozier could return from injury during the series, it may give Denver enough flexibility to combat the Blazers rotation. I’m counting on it.

Bridgford: Nuggets in 7. Similar to Ryan, I’m leaning towards the idea that a longer series gives Dozier and Barton a better chance at getting back for one or two of the final games. Bringing either of those guys into the rotation makes the team deeper while giving more minutes to better players at a current position of weakness.