When two players like Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard are throwing haymakers left and right, it’s easy to look past what ultimately is going to decide this series. In the first two games of of the Nuggets/Blazers series, bench play has been the deciding factor in both contents.
Even in a game that saw Lillard score 42 points and Jokic go for 38 points, it ended up being the play of two players on two-way contracts — Markus Howard and Shaq Harrison — alongside Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green, and Monte Morris that decided the outcome of the game.
To get to that point we have to look back to Game 1 in which the Nuggets lost 123-109. In that game, the Nuggets bench was outscored 34-20, which ended up being the 14-point difference in the final score. Fast forward to Game 2 and the Nuggets bench outscored Portland 38-12 (+26), which was the key in Denver winning by 19 points.
For the Nuggets to have success they have to survive when Jokic is off the floor and they did a much better job of that in Game 2. So much so that Jokic only had to play 31 minutes, which is huge considering the Nuggets will need him to play more as the series goes on.
So what changed in Game 2 from the Nuggets bench unit that we didn't see in Game 1? For starters, Millsap turning back the clock and straight dominating the Trail Blazers in just 15 minutes off the bench was a pleasant surprise. According to Nuggets PR, Millsap is the first player in NBA history to score 15 points, haul in seven rebounds, and dish out three assists in 15 minutes or less off the bench in a playoff game.
Pretty spectacular stuff from Millsap, who was playing bully ball with Portland en route to easy baskets all game long. It wasn't just Millsap that made his presence felt though as Morris also played a great game scoring 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field to go along with seven assists. Morris finished the game as a +19, which tied with Aaron Gordon for the highest on the team.
As great as their offense was, the success of Denver’s second unit boiled down to defense. After letting Carmelo Anthony (18) and Anfernee Simons (14) combine for 32 points in Game 1, the Nuggets bench unit held that combo to just eight points in Game 2. Effort and physicality played a role in that as Simons was forced back to the locker room at one point with a lip laceration caused my Millsap’s physicality.
Another point that goes unnoticed is when the Nuggets bench unit plays they are still having to face off against one of the Trail Blazers star players. Whether it’s Lillard or CJ McCollum, the Trail Blazers do a great job of staggering their stars so they can play against the Nuggets second unit when Jokic is off the floor.
Lillard played 40 minutes in Game 1 and 42 minutes in Game 2, so he is barely ever resting which forces the Nuggets bench unit to match up against him. No one can guard Lillard one-on-one, but a mixture of guys like Shaq Harrison and Monte Morris can hold their own until Aaron Gordon, Facu Campazzo, and Austin Rivers sub back in.
“It’s Damian Lillard, man. Everybody in the world knows how great of a scorer he is; how quick he can heat up. We all knew that going into the series. He’s going to have spurts like that, we just have to withstand it and really just keep doing us,” Morris said following Game 2. “Once he got hot, we kind of were calling timeouts and got our stuff together and kept running Denver Nuggets’ basketball and withstood the storm. We know him, CJ [McCollum] are guys who can get it going in bunches, so we just have to be ready for it every time and try to do our best.”
A moment that really encapsulates the play by the Nuggets bench unit was the 1:15 that Shaq Harrison played in the first half. After Lillard had just drained his eighth three of the half, Michael Malone subbed Harrison in to try and slow down Lillard. It was just for a 1:15, but Harrison did just that and it allowed the Nuggets to take a 12-point lead into halftime following a big time three from Jokic at the first half buzzer.
“We’re in the playoffs and playing two 2-way players, that’s why you have to love this team,” Malone said following Game 2.
It’s that type of mindset that could turn this series in the Nuggets favor. Even though Denver is shorthanded, they have the heart and hustle to make this a series to remember. One thing is certain and it’s the Nuggets go as their bench goes and if Game 2 was any indication of what’s to come it looks like Denver is going to be just fine.