The Denver Nuggets are in the familiar situation of being down 1-0 in a playoff series. Among the six playoff series they have taken part in with Nikola Jokić on the roster, this is the fourth time the Nuggets are down 1-0. The previous three matchups included their first ever series against the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Los Angeles Lakers, and they are 2-1 in the eventual series after going down 1-0.
Being down 1-0 shouldn’t be scary for the Nuggets. If anything, it’s understandable. The Portland Trail Blazers entered the playoffs red hot offensively, and that continued in Game 1. The shorthanded Nuggets started Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers while playing Markus Howard 20+ minutes. It’s not surprise that there’s an adjustment period to be had.
However, tying the series at 1-1 versus going back to Portland down 2-0 is a big difference. Denver could win a best-of-five series after evening things up at 1-1. I doubt they could win four out of five games against the Blazers if they go down 2-0. That puts a lot of pressure on the outcome of Game 2 tonight for Denver. Can they make the requisite improvements to get a win?
Let’s talk about three key areas of improvement:
Improved Movement around Nikola Jokić
The Blazers weren’t secretive about it. They want to take away Nikola Jokić’s passing in the post as often as they can. They did a great job of that in the first game, limiting Jokić to one assist as he attempted 27 shots to try and help Denver win the game in that manner.
Throughout the game, there was very little movement around Jokić in the post. Very few cuts through the lane. Very few weak side screens to try and free up a shooter. It mostly was just eight players watching Jokić and Jusuf Nurkić battle in the post. Jokić won that battle often, but it’s still not a high percentage offense to just be taking midrange and contested two’s for most of the game.
The Nuggets have to find a way to take advantage of Jokić’s passing capabilities, and to do that, they must commit to off-ball movement. whether it be hard cuts into open space, back screens and flair screens on the weak side, or even a split action, the Nuggets must get more creative on Jokić’s post up opportunities. Introducing more movement will manufacture more open shots. It also might compromise Denver’ transition defense at times, but that’s the price to pay for trying to make high value plays.
Better three-point shooting differential
It’s no secret that the Nuggets must improve from three-point range as well. Shooting 30.6% from three isn’t good, and shooting 11-of-36 when the opponent shoots 19-of-40 means that the Nuggets have some work to do in making up the difference.
Let’s start with the obvious: Michael Porter Jr. shot 1-of-10 from three by himself. if he shoots 4-of-10, the Nuggets remain in the game all the way up until the closing seconds. Porter is perhaps the most talented shooter the Nuggets franchise has ever had. He has the capability to shoot 7-of-10 from three tonight. If he were to do that, everything changes for Denver.
Beyond Porter, the Nuggets could use more from Austin Rivers. The Blazers are daring him to be the one that hurts them, or at least they did so in Game 1. He has the talent to make it happen, and if he comes through, it might change the Blazers’ game plan.
These are separate screenshots on three different Austin Rivers missed threes.— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) May 23, 2021
The Blazers are going to continue daring him and Denver's other supporting shooters to beat them. pic.twitter.com/Cml3Fm1S8V
Denver’s bench also shot 2-of-7 from three, and by attacking the midrange, the Nuggets fell right into the Blazers’ hands analytically. There are only so many points Denver can score while consistently attacking the midrange rather than getting all the way to the paint or shooting threes. Getting more scoring production from Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green is a must as well.
Finally, differentials occur both ways. The Nuggets defense has to prevent the Blazers from making 19 threes themselves. It doesn’t have to be a massive difference, but 15-of-40 at 37.5% versus 19-of-40 and 47.5% is a tangible change in efficiency and would mean a lot for the Nuggets. The margins they are operating on are so thin right now because of the shorthanded nature of the roster. If they could get the three-point defense back to respectable levels, it would go a long way.
Closing out harder on Blazers role players
This is one of the reasons the Blazers shot so well from three-point range:
Finally finished Nuggets - Blazers Game 1. Yeah, that must've stung live, eh.— Joel Rush (@JoelRushNBA) May 24, 2021
Almost 4 am, so crashing now, but I'll just say that my one key to the game tonight for Denver is do this less: pic.twitter.com/vQwhzVvf4T
Several shots for Anfernee Simons, Carmelo Anthony, and Robert Covington looked just like that, and that specific trio of Blazers role players shot 10-of-17 from three-point range, a significantly higher number than the Nuggets were surely hoping for.
It’s on the Nuggets to make the final rotations and play all 24 seconds on the shot clock. There were several possessions like the one above where Michael Porter Jr. needed to make the final rotation out to the perimeter after collapsing into the paint but never got to it, leaving Simons, Powell, and even CJ McCollum at times. That’s just not going to cut it.
These are the margins where Denver can tangibly improve by just recognizing the Blazers sets and flying around on the perimeter. Whether they want to do that or not remains to be seen, but expect a better all-around effort in Game 2.