Alright, that one was a painful way to start a playoff series.
The energy in the building was electric, the Denver Nuggets played to the fans well, but they didn’t have enough to match the shooting prowess of the Portland Trail Blazers in tonight’s 123-109 loss. There are good signs for Denver going forward in this series, but it never feels good to drop the first game. The Nuggets will have to correct things quickly.
Here are my five takeaways from game 1:
Nikola Jokić will have to be the best player in this series to win it
It was a very impressive scoring night from Nikola Jokić as he went for 34 points and 16 rebounds on 14-of-27 from the field. His shot quality was pretty low, and he had to settle for some difficult looks, but he made several of them. At one point, he had 22 points on 9-of-16 from the field going into halftime. He had just 12 points in the second half though, and the Nuggets felt significantly different offensively because of it.
Damian Lillard is going to get his shots, and he has the spacing around him to maximize those possessions. Jokić doesn’t have that luxury, but he will have to fight through the struggle in order to win this series. The Blazers are going to push, slap, scratch, and amass as many borderline fouls as they can get away with against him. Only four free throws attempted isn’t going to get it done, and Jokić will have to go foul hunting if he wants to keep pace with the Blazers stars.
Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons were the difference
When Carmelo Anthony was announced to Ball Arena, Nuggets fans booed him relentlessly for obvious reasons, and Melo made them pay for it. 18 points on 12 shots and some good defensive plays helped turn the tide for the Blazers after Lillard and CJ McCollum were initially inefficient.
If it were just Melo, it would have been fine, but the Blazers also got 14 points on 6 shots from Anfernee Simons. His shots were mostly wide open, and he made the Nuggets pay for it almost every single time. Those were the killers for Denver, because while you expect stars to hit the open looks, reserves and role players being just as lethal is just painful.
Can Denver even recover to those shooters going forward with how much attention they pay to Dame and CJ? Will the Blazers continue to shoot such a high percentage from three? Both questions are legitimate.
Damian Lillard was initially a distributor before hunting for his shots
The Nuggets showed two defenders on Dame almost every single time in the pick and roll. With Jokić out there, that’s what the Nuggets have chosen to do. Sometimes, Dame got the corner on Jokić’s hedge, but most of the time, he was dishing passes off to other Blazers for open shots that they hit nearly every single time.
At some point during the third quarter, Dame stopped passing as often and instead hunted his own shots via mismatches. He spent time going at Michael Porter Jr. and was mostly successful. He also went to the post against Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo trying to get those guys in foul trouble.
Ultimately, Lillard finished with 34 points and 13 assists. He commands so much attention but has improved too much as a passer for the Nuggets to sell out helping onto him. He was probably the best player tonight, and the Nuggets need to change that.
Michael Porter Jr. is THAT dude, but he has to hit his threes too
It was an interesting debut for Michael Porter Jr. as the second option of the Nuggets offense tonight. There were moments of greatness and some questionable shots taken, but the young scoring forward ultimately generated 25 points on 21 shooting possessions. He was 11-of-11 from two-point range, dominating inside and hitting some truly incredible shots. Superstar shots.
The downside? 1-of-10 from three-point range isn’t going to cut it. He has to be better from distance. Significantly better. Many of the shots that he attempted were simply misses on the normal contested shots that he takes. Some of the shots were more questionable, but that’s the price of admission for having a dead-eye shooter. He can make the tough ones.
The Nuggets need to find some ways to create space for their top outside shooter. Him making his threes bends the defense in impossible ways that will open up opportunities for the rest of the team. If he hits those shots, the Nuggets have a chance. If he misses them, the Nuggets are cooked.
It’s one game, but the three-point line will be the barometer
The Nuggets hit 11 threes tonight on 36 attempts, a 30.6% mark that doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence going forward. Porter can certainly turn things around after a 1-of-10 night, but the bench combining to go 2-of-7 collectively and Austin Rivers chipping in a 1-of-5 performance doesn’t make predicting regression any easier.
The Blazers, on the other hand, shot 19-of-40 from three-point range tonight, good for 47.5%. Many of those shots were tough looks that the Blazers just made, but just as many were easy shots generated after multiple Nuggets defensive rotations. The Blazers worked the ball around, found the open shooter, and converted consistently.
The Nuggets aren’t going to stop these shots altogether, but they do have to limit those looks. If Denver hits 15 outside shots and Portland hits 15 outside shots, then that flips the margin by 24 points in Denver’s favor. They don’t need THAT many shots to go their way to have a chance in this series, but they need the Blazers to not shoot 47.5% in every game. That would help greatly.
It’s one game. It’s tough that Denver has to go down 1-0 in this series initially, but they’ve fought back from worse. This series was always going to go deep, and the Nuggets need to work hard just to shrink the margins. Let’s see what they can do in Game 2.