The NBA playoffs are completely different than the regular season for a number of reasons. From the intensity of the moment to the skill level of the players, the basketball is often elevated to new heights, which is why so many people care about the playoffs over anything else.
Another difference between regular season and playoffs is the series style of competition. Often, teams bounce around the league during the regular season and rarely see the same team twice in a row. When the playoffs arrive, things slow down, and opponents are afforded the opportunity to zero in on each other with complete focus. Writers are afforded the opportunity to do the same, and it’s a great opportunity to partner with our friends over at Blazers Edge, the SB Nation affiliate site of the Portland Trail Blazers, to know the Nuggets opponent better than before.
Huge thanks go out to Steve Dewald of Blazers Edge for answering some burning questions ahead of the Nuggets first round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s certainly shaping up to be a series to remember, so let’s get to the questions and some information on what to expect when the Trail Blazers come to town on Saturday night.
1. Portland has won 10 out of their last 12 games. What has been the key to their success, and do you think it can continue in the playoffs?
Two things played a part in the Blazers’ late-season push. First, Portland’s roster finally came together. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic found their legs after a prolonged stint on the injury report. Norman Powell, who was acquired from the Raptors at the trade deadline, carved out a role as an impactful contributor on both ends of the floor.
Second, Damian Lillard returned to full strength in the month of May. For the majority of the year, Lillard was tasked with carrying an undermanned squad that was absolutely abysmal on defense. In April, that workload had caught up to him. His output and efficiency cratered and he lost steam in his MVP bid as a result. The lowest point came during a five-game losing skid near the end of the month. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Lillard called for an attitude shift in his postgame interviews. His teammates heard the message and the entire squad turned around. That team wide uptick opened up lanes and space for Lillard to return to his favorite spots. With Lillard clicking, the wins piled up.
2. Who is the Trail Blazers “X-Factor” that Denver needs to worry about most?
I know this might generate a few groans, but Nurkic lifts the Blazers to an entirely different level when he is healthy. His presence in the middle covers up for Portland’s lack of defense in the backcourt. His ability to protect the paint also allows Robert Covington to roam in passing lanes. Offensively, Nurkic opens up the entire floor. Nobody on the roster creates more space for Lillard in two-man actions and he has shown that he can make the right pass if he has a teammate cutting along the baseline.
3. Nikola Jokic has bested Jusuf Nurkic over the past few seasons, do you think that trend continues or changes in this series?
For me, this is the biggest question for the entire series. If Nurkic can avoid foul trouble and keep Jokic under 30 points a night, the Blazers might be able to stay home on the Nuggets’ perimeter shooters. If the wheels come off, look out.
4. With Terry Stotts supposedly on the hot seat, do you think that will inspire Portland to play a little harder in order to keep their coach around long-term?
The speculation regarding coach Stotts’ future is an absolute roller coaster ride. It appears that the ride is far from over. Stotts probably has to guide the Blazers back to the Western Conference Finals in order to fully reach safety heading into the offseason. That said, he is certainly in a better place than he was back in April.
Once the offseason arrives, a coaching shakeup represents the biggest avenue for change in Portland. The Blazers do not have cap flexibility and they are without a draft pick in both rounds this year. Unless the Blazers show a true willingness to dismantle the Lillard-McCollum pairing, removing Stotts might be the only clear-cut move.
5. What is the key for Portland to be successful in this series? Or does it pretty much just boil down to the play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum?
Keeping pressure off Lillard is crucial for the Blazers in any series. For the first time in the post-LaMarcus era, the Blazers finally have a competent two-way threat in Powell. Powell, McCollum and Nurkic have to generate points if the ball is routinely forced out of Lillard’s hands. Since arriving from the Raptors, Powell has thrived in the space created by Lillard’s gravity. If those three players fall short, Lillard and the Blazers run the risk of another early exit from the postseason.