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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: Portland Trail Blazers preview

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

The Denver Nuggets are back in the playoffs with the third overall seed in the Western Conference, and they’re primed for a matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers starting tomorrow night. Denver was throttled in the final game of the season by this Portland team, but Denver rested the majority of their rotation for the final half of the game after giving them the first half to keep the tires warm.

This is a rematch from two years ago when the Blazers knocked the Nuggets out of the playoffs in the second round at the end of a seven-game series after the Nuggets had gotten out to a 3-2 lead. While there will be a couple of holdovers from that previous series, there have been a lot of changes to both of these rosters. If Will Barton is unable to return for the series, Denver will have just three players from that series on the floor in the forms of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Monte Morris. For Portland, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Enes Kanter are the only three from that side.

Denver is still dealing with a number of injuries, most of which are almost entirely at the guard position. Outside of Zach Collins, the Blazers are a largely healthy team. This figures to be one of the most competitive matchups of the first round in either conference because they are two teams that know each other extremely well with 20 games played, including the playoffs, since January of 2018. How can Denver win? If they lose, what did they not do? That’s what we’re diving into today.

Dame Time

For Portland, everything starts and ends with Lillard. He’s the second-best player in this series behind only Jokic, and he’s just as capable of taking a game over, especially late. In 34 clutch, defined as games within five points in the final five minutes, games this season, Lillard is 22-12 in the win-loss column while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from 3-point range. Lillard’s usage rate in these clutch minutes is a healthy 36.6 which paces the team by 13.6 over McCollum. The team wants the ball in Lillard’s hands late in the game. One of the major keys to slowing Dame down is using his own confidence against him. He’s one of the best shooters in the game. He knows it just as everyone else does, but that can get him in trouble at times. On this play, the Brooklyn Nets are picking him up 35 feet from the rim. He knows he can make that shot, and, once he gets a little separation, he tries to despite two different Nets jumping to contest the shot. He misses, and it ends up being Nets’ ball. Can Lillard make that shot? Absolutely. Would the team have a chance at a better shot if the Nets gave him more room coming up to get a closer opportunity from 3-point range or allowed him to pass? Absolutely. Lillard’s confidence is correctly placed, but he will take shots like this if he’s feeling himself.

This is the effort that needs to be had on Lillard all game long. Lillard starts in the corner with Facundo Campazzo guarding him before wrapping around to the short right wing while going around three screens. Campazzo pursues him the entire way and ends up just a few feet short of a strong contest on the shot, but, what that play did, was force Lillard to expend more energy. Denver doesn’t have the guards to wear him out on the defensive end, so, what they need to do is make him work more on every single possession on offense.

Offensive Adjustments

Getting Jusuf Nurkic away from the hoop needs to be a priority for the Nuggets on the offensive end of the floor. For his career, he averages 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes, and, when he’s the closest defender, opponents shoot 8.7 percent worse within six feet of the hoop. However, that number gets better for the offense as they get further and further from the hoop. On this play, Nurkic isn’t even the primary defender. Aaron Gordon is sizing up Robert Covington in transition with only Norman Powell as a threat to stop his drive with help defense Nurkic is across the floor on the other wing, and that gives Gordon the easy dunk at the rim. With Denver lacking the shooting of Barton and Jamal Murray, they need to get as many easy looks at the basket as possible.

With no Murray and possibly no Barton, it’s Michael Porter Jr.’s time to put up or shut up. He’s been a gunner from 3-point range for two seasons, but his role on offense has grown over the last few months. He still needs to work on his ball-handling skills this offseason, but they will need to be at least somewhat passable in this series. His threat as a shooter will open up lanes to the basket that he has to take advantage of considering he’s shooting 83.8 percent at the rim this season. On this play, the threat of his pull-up jumper forces multiple defenders to scramble out towards him. Once they’ve overcommitted, he’s able to drive to the rim for the layup. Denver needs another ball-handler outside of Jokic, and it can be Porter.

It’s Joker SZN

Let Jokic cook. At the end of the day, Denver’s best chance of winning this series is with Jokic playing at the highest level. Jokic averaged fewer points per game in wins than he did in losses, but he averages more assists while shooting a better percentage because his teammates are more involved with more room to work. On this play, Jokic goes right at Nurkic. It’s a one-on-one matchup with Portland’s best frontcourt defender, and Jokic beats him with ease. He still had four fouls to give here, so it’s not like he was in foul trouble. Jokic just does his business and gets the easy bucket. When he’s playing like this, it leads to plays like the one below.

Where is every single defender looking on this play? They’re all watching Jokic. He hasn’t even scored yet in this game, but everyone is aware of the damage he can do. They know how good of a passer he is, but they can’t just let him score easy buckets. With all the attention he draws, it becomes that much more important for the rest of the team to be looking for the ball to be coming their way. Porter waits for Powell to be staring at Jokic for just a half second too long, and, with how good of a finisher he is at the rim, he turns this into two points.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.