Denver captured the most important win of the season beating Portland by 19 last night. Both teams have now won by double digits and scored 120+ points in their victories. Denver held a fairly sizable lead throughout the game, but it never felt fully in grasp until the end because that is playoff basketball.
Many felt it was a must-win since Portland took home-court advantage by beating Denver in Game 1. Now on the road, the Nuggets must find a way to steal at least one game in Portland to regain home court. It is entirely feasible because the Nuggets have done it many times before, but they will need to clean up some things in order to do so.
Here is my Game 2 film session:
Defending high screen and roll for their guards
I discussed this in my five takeaways from last night, and I will reiterate it because Portland is annihilating Denver with these looks. They like to isolate Jokic and Porter in these possessions, in part, because they do not have the quickest feet. There were several times in Game 2 where Portland’s guards came off screens and Denver defenders approached with flat feet, unathletic position, and wrong angles.
Here’s an example of Jokic setting the wrong angle on the screen. He’s in decent athletic position, but he offers Lillard his favorite three-point shot. He loves to shoot those elbow threes whether it’s from 25 feet or 35. When you’re guarding the screen and you're the hedge man, you have to take something away. Jokic doesn’t take anything away here. His angle provides Lillard a wide-open lane to the basket if he wants, but he also retreats and gives Dame about five feet of space at the three-point line which is a cardinal sin.
This the type of action you would like to see off a high screen with Lillard. You want to crowd his space and set an angle as soon as you can like Porter does here. The problem is this isn’t Lillard. This is a “know your personnel” play right here. Porter approaches McCollum when he’s at the logo and sets an angle preventing him from going right. There are two issues with this play. One, it is unnecessary to crowd McCollum at the logo off a screen. Could he hit that shot? Yes possibly but that’s not his game nor is it his spot. When he sees this action he wants to get downhill. Two, if you are going to set this angle preventing him from going right, you obviously can’t let him go right. Again, you have to take away at least one thing if you’re defending the screen.
MPJ has to unlock his potential
This might make some Nugget fans upset, but I promise you MPJ nor the coaching staff is completely satisfied with his play so far either. He has played well this series but not excellent. He has much more in the tank, and if he can release the beast Denver will be scary for any team. I think he needs to play a little better, but of course, it’s just my opinion and who cares. Yes, I know the drill.
MPJ arguably has the talent and a skill set we’ve never seen before in a Nugget uniform. He does not have star potential rather superstar, Hall of Fame potential. Superstar potential comes with superstar expectations. He will get his 17-20 every night even if his shot is off. That is how good he is, but that should not be the bar for him. When Steph Curry drops 45 but he has 7 turnovers in a loss, he apologizes to his team because he knows he could play better.
MPJ dropped 25 points and shot 11-11 from inside the arc in Game 1. Those are incredible numbers, but he shot 1-10 from three and his team lost by 14. If he shoots his normal percentage it is a much different game. Sure, his scoring kept us in the game for a long time, but are we looking for moral victories or actual victories? He is the X-factor for Denver in this series. If Jamal was healthy, the Nuggets might not need exceptional play from Porter, but he is so MPJ must be that elite scorer for the Nuggets to put up 115+ every night.
Do we want satisfactory from Porter or extraordinary?
One way he can excel through pressure is with help from his teammates. It should not be his sole responsibility to score for Denver, his teammates have to make it easier on him. This possession basically begins with 10 seconds on the shot clock, so there's not much time to create a shot but it is plenty for NBA time. First of all, Porter comes off the Jokic handoff and drops the pass. If he catches it he has a decent look for three, and he probably knocks it down because he’s that good. On the other hand, there are seven seconds left when he gathers to shoot, and four Nuggets are ball watching on the perimeter. Seven seconds is plenty of time to pass and cut, and since nobody is moving Porter is forced to shoot a tough shot over two lengthy defenders.
Portland is crowding MPJ every time when he gets to his spots because they are not afraid of Denver’s cuts to the rim. If Denver exercised patience here, they could have a mismatch in the post with Jokic, or a Gordon cut to the rim against a smaller defender in McCollum. Again, MPJ has more to prove in this series, but his teammates have to help him because Denver does not win consistently with hero ball.
This is not what you’re looking for if you want to slow down Lillard. Covington roams around Morris contemplating which side he wants to screen for Dame. MPJ is the help defender, and once Covington screens, Porter is a solid 10-15 feet away from a guy who hit eight threes in the first half. He puts a hand up, but what is a hand up going to accomplish when you’re 10 feet away from a guy with laser focus?
If Porter gives a hard hedge and meets him at the Ball Arena logo it would prevent this shot. Nobody is focused on Covington being the roll man nor should they in this spot. So if MPJ disrupts Lillard’s path, it gives Morris more time to recover and Porter can return to Covington. If Dame drives past Porter, that’s okay because Denver would gladly trade a Lillard wide-open three for a layup.
With that being said, he did make a couple great defensive plays tallying two steals. When he is confident and engaged defensively he is a disruptor, and I think we will continue to see that type of play in spots. If you’re Michael Malone, you would like more consistency.
Am I being overly critical? That's for you to decide, but playoff basketball is a game of inches and one play can create massive momentum swings in each direction. Porter has the most minutes of any Nugget so far this postseason, so that tells you how much Denver needs his production. When the bench comes in and he’s still on the floor, Denver is looking for him to lead that unit offensively. It will be tough because Portland will get physical and swarm him every possession. That’s where his teammates must open up the game for him. Whether that be give and go’s or off-ball cuts to the rim, they need to open the floor more.
Here is the positive part of the piece. Denver outscored Portland 16-4 in fastbreak points, and many of those buckets ignited the crowd. The Nuggets are more of a half-court offense, but they took advantage of easy looks, capitalized and it paid off.
This play gave Denver some early momentum and a nice confidence boost for Rivers. The play starts with a rebound from Gordon who has made some great contested rebounds in this series. He secures the board, immediately runs up court and finds Rivers for three. Gordon is such an athletic player and a good rebounder, so I think we can see more of this where he grabs the rebound and goes.
Offensively, I think Gordon is at his best in the post, cutting, and in transition. The fast break offers mismatches if you can find them. Portland’s defense isn’t set up yet, and Jokic recognizes so he passes to Gordon who has momentum driving against Lillard. It’s in the first half, but this is a crucial play in the game. Portland started to make a little run to end the quarter, but Denver responded with the and-one opportunity and held momentum.
Part of effective postseason play is ending quarters well. It’s one of the reasons Denver won on Monday because as Portland made their runs, but Denver answered with huge momentum baskets.
Nuggets don’t win that game without effective play from Morris and Millsap in my opinion. When the bench sputtered with hesitant shooting, the veteran Millsap revealed his aggressiveness and scored clutch baskets. I could show several Millsap clips, but I don't want to oversaturate you with content, and midrange Morris returning must be talked about.
This is typical Monte and he returned to form on Monday. We haven’t seen it consistently yet since coming off his injury, but he hasn't had much time to get comfortable. This is such a welcome sight because when he is healthy he is automatic from midrange.
He comes off the Millsap screen and drops McCollum like a sack of potatoes. What I love to see is Morris avoiding hesitation on this jumper. He knows he’s wide open after McCollum falls, but he steps right into it because he doesn't need any more time to get that shot off. As Denver travels on the road, they will need this type of scoring from the bench.
Oh, you missed my constructive criticism? Don’t worry I got you covered here. The Blazers won Game 1, in part, because their bench was fantastic. Anthony shot 6-12 from the field and 4-8 from three giving him 18. Simons shot 5-6, and 4-5 from three resulting in 14 points. In Game 2 they struggled and Denver’s bench outplayed them in a victory. Overall, teams’ bench seem to play better at home, so if you’re Denver you are expecting a bounce-back performance from Kanter, Melo, and Simons.
This Simons three could be avoided. Portland is not the team to dare them to shoot threes. Instead, you dare them to shoot two’s because you know how much firepower they have from three. Lillard is going to drive on MPJ, and Jokic does not approach Lillard aggressively. This causes Morris to help on Lillard leaving Simons wide open for three.
If Jokic steps in front of the restricted area, and Dame passes it to Kanter for a dunk that's better than a Simons three. Even if Jokic crowds Lillard entering the paint, he is not totally giving up a Kanter dunk because Jokic has great hands and can anticipate passing lanes for a steal.
Overall, I thought Denver’s rotations were much better in Game 2. They did not give Portland’s bench as many open looks as Game 1, I just wanted to point this one out because I think it is a key for games 3 and 4.
It was exciting to see Denver handily beat Portland, and what is more exciting is they still didn’t play their best ball in a 19 point victory. As unhealthy as they are, the Nuggets margin for error grows smaller with every game, yet that seems to be when they play their best.
What a treat we have to watch this incredible matchup and have a team like this resilient, underdog Nuggets squad represent this state. If the Nuggets lose a competitive series in 7 possibly 6 games many people, including myself, will view this season under a positive light considering the circumstances.
With that being said, this state is hungry to be respected for the great basketball it exhibits. This state is not looking for moral victories. We want wins. Let’s go get three more. Game 3 starts Thursday at 8:30 PM MT.