That was playoff energy if I’ve ever felt it.
It was a very physical, chippy game from these two contenders resulting in a 128-109 Denver victory. There were multiples scuffles in the middle of the floor producing two flagrants and four combined technicals from both teams. The fans at Ball Arena ignited Denver’s energy facilitating a sizeable lead over Portland throughout the game.
Here are my five takeaways:
Nikola Jokic is an unstoppable force
Jokic answered Dame’s 42 with 38 of his own shooting an incredible 15-20 from the field in the winning effort. Portland’s game plan is to let Denver score in the paint in hopes they will answer with threes. The Nuggets nearly doubled the Blazers in the paint outscoring them 54-32. They seem to avoid double-teaming Jokic which gives him isolation opportunities against inferior defenders in Nurkic and Kanter. Nurkic fouled out midway through the fourth, and if they’re going to keep allowing Jokic one-on-one opportunities against him he will be in foul trouble the entire series.
The superstar matchup between Lillard and Jokic is incredibly compelling. It’s almost as though we are watching the reincarnation of old ’80s-’90s basketball with Jokic against the modern offensive explosion of Damian Lillard. Jokic has the uncanny ability to get wherever he wants on the floor without much athleticism, and when he gets deep in the paint he has the best post moves in the game. In the first two games, he combined for 72 points. If that isn’t engraving his MVP case I don't know what will.
Denver needs to slow down Lillard’s looks off high screen and roll
Death, taxes and Damian Lillard hitting three’s off the high screen and roll. It’s Portland’s favorite and most reliable play. They are setting great, physical screens and Denver hasn’t had any answers for it yet. Sometimes you can’t stop Lillard, but you can change angles off screens.
Portland isolates Jokic and Porter in this action and sometimes Nugget defenders are hedging the screen with flat feet and no angles. If they set the screen, defenders cannot give Dame any room. Not even an inch. You have to get the ball out of his hands, and if Covington, Melo, and Simons hit shots then so be it because they have not shown to be consistent yet. Denver’s rotations were much better in game 2 which helped solidify disappointing efforts from Melo and Simons. If Denver can figure a way to slow down their screen game Lillard will have to work much harder to create the shots he wants to take.
Midrange Monte is back
Monte’s 12 points and a game-high +19 was certainly a welcome sight. He’s only played a handful of games since coming back from injury and last night he seemed to be his most comfortable. He is such a crucial part of this team, and they are desperate for some consistent scoring off the bench.
He also forced a couple of nice defensive plays on Lillard and tallied two steals. He might never be confused for a lockdown defender, but it is really nice to have him matched up with Dame and still be competitive. Denver’s ball movement was much better this game and Morris was a huge part of it. He led the Nuggets with 7 assists and he will look to do much of the same in game 3.
Bring physicality to every game
I wouldn’t call Denver the most physical team in the league or anywhere close to it, but when it starts getting overly physical they certainly respond. The two flagrants by Portland obviously gave Denver points, but it inflamed the crowd and the Nuggets fed off that energy. You could tell they were being aggressive to the basket and not taking no for answer.
Denver is more of a finesse bunch, but when they have a little anger in their game it promotes aggressiveness and it paid off tonight.
Bench play will decide this series
Jokic and Lillard can drop 50 every game this series if it’s what their team needs. They will show up every night, but it's both team’s benches that need to emerge to earn victories. In game 1, Portland’s bench performed well in a win and Denver’s bench responded tonight with great work from Morris and Millsap.
Millsap was the silent MVP of this game. When the bench was struggling and hesitant offensively, good ol’ Paul got in the post and delivered. He will not give Denver better athleticism, or the ability to defend Portland’s guards better. What he does give you is experience, toughness, and intellectual play. Loved his game tonight.
Now that the series is knotted at 1-1 the real test comes on the road. The Moda Center is not allowing as many fans as Ball Arena, but the Blazers will feed off any energy they can get.
Look for McCollum and Powell to step up a little more offensively. Denver will have to get better performances from MPJ if they want to capitalize on the road. Game 3 is Thursday at 8:30 PM MT.