The 2019-2020 Denver Nuggets training camp began with a primary source of motivation: re-watching the Portland Trail Blazers celebrate their Game 7 victory on the then Pepsi Center court after having ended Denver’s postseason and hope of returning to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.
The Nuggets took that motivation and ran with it, breaking that conference finals drought and giving the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers five close games in a miraculous playoff run in Orlando last summer.
And now, as the Nuggets match up against the Blazers for the second time in three postseasons, they have their chance to get redemption. To get there, though, they will have to get through the two most notorious ex-Nuggets from recent history who undoubtedly will want to win just as bad.
Game 1 of this series belonged to Portland. Yes, Damian Lillard got his with 34 points while co-star CJ McCollum chipped in 21 of his own. In the end though, it was Carmel Anthony and Jusuf Nurkic - both who didn’t play in the 2019 series - who made the difference.
The limited-capacity crowd in Denver still found a way to loudly boo Anthony after a decade has passed since his trade request was granted. His response? 18 points off of four made threes as he championed Portland’s bench effort to a decisive 34-20 margin. Melo had 12 points in the first quarter alone and was the reason the Blazers had really any momentum in the game since that point.
For most of the night, Nurkic looked like smoked meat courtesy of Nikola Jokic. Late in the fourth, though, Nurk sealed the deal with his strong play. He had two assists and a few big buckets down low off of offensive rebounds, including an and-one which absolutely killed the Nuggets. When he checked in with 8:14 left in the fourth, Portland held just a four point lead at 102-98. The Blazers won 123-109 and Nurkic finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, extinguishing the Nuggets hopes at the end.
How can the Nuggets get back on track in Game 2?
Portland’s game plan was clearly to force Jokic to score (Nurkic and Dame literally said so after) and he did as the Joker racked up 34 points of his own. Unfortunately, the plan worked as he was held to just one assist. The Blazers dared anyone else besides Jokic and Porter to beat them; no one else truly stepped up to the challenge.
Without a fallback in Murray, Jokic will have a tough balancing act this series. He absolutely has to score, but alone he cannot do it all. Expect Jokic to find ways to get his teammates more involved from here on out.
Michael Porter Jr. was just 1-for-10 from three but for a guy who had one of the most efficient, high-volume shooting seasons in league history the chances of that trend continuing seem slim. Porter still put up 25 points thanks to perfect shooting from inside the arc, but on defense he became Lillard’s punching bag, especially in the third quarter when Dame scored 15 points and Portland took the lead for good.
That stretch gave some real PTSD from last year’s first round when Donovan Mitchell did the same thing. Porter has to be better on both ends; at a bare minimum he can’t be baited into fouls five feet off the three-point line.
It sucks that Denver’s depth has been decimated by injury, but this is a no-excuse team. The Nuggets absolutely need more from the fringe players. Facu’s efforts on Dame were admirable but the results were to be expected. The eight points he contributed were gravy, but Austin Rivers was M.I.A. (though he maybe gets a pass as he had some sort of illness this weekend). Dangerous in certain doses, the duo of Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green instead was laughable. JaVale McGee may or may not be better against Kanter on paper, but surely he could have done more than those two.
The easiest adjustment Denver can make is to actually treat Jokic and Porter like its a playoff game. They have to play more than the 35 and 37 minutes they got, respectively. At a bare minimum they should both be at 40 minutes, When you have the MVP on the team in a favorable match up regardless of which defender is on the floor, you should probably play the MVP.
A 0-1 deficit is never ideal, but as Michael Porter Jr. said afterwards, “It’s just one game.” There’s a lot of basketball to still be played. The Nuggets will be alright.