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Stiffs Roundtable: Denver Nuggets & Portland Trail Blazers mid-series update

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Denver Stiffs writers answer the burning questions before Game 3 of the Nuggets-Blazers series.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

After two games, the series is tied 1-1. Has your confidence in the Denver Nuggets changed from before the start of the series?

Tommy Knowlton (@TommyKnow303): Even though the series is tied, my confidence is a little higher than it was going in. Denver has not played their best ball yet, and in a win they put up 120+. Michael Porter Jr. has played well, but he is yet to be unleashed offensively. The bench play was a very welcome sight in Game 2. Vintage Monte returned, and the veteran Millsap showed he can still be relied upon. I figured Portland would steal at least one of Denver’s home games, and I expect Denver to do the same in Portland.

Brandon Ewing (@B_Skip1717): I really didn't know what to expect before the series began, so it’s safe to say my confidence has stayed the same. I was worried after Game 1 because it just didn't seem like the Nuggets had enough fire power to keep up with the Trail Blazers. After Game 2, I think this series will ultimately come down to the play of the Nuggets bench unit, which was much better in the second game. If guys like Monte Morris, Paul Millsap, and JaMychal Green continue to play solid, it makes me extremely confident in the Nuggets chances to have success for the remainder of the series.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I’m constantly worried about the Nuggets losing — I’m a Nuggets fan. I do think that there is a path for them to win this series, and they’re going to continue to have to have defensive performances like they did in Game 2. I am slightly more confident now that I’ve seen a way to get a win, but these two games in Portland are very scary for me.

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): I predicted Nuggets in 7 prior to the start of the series, and after wavering a little bit after Game 1, I’m sticking with that initial prediction. Both teams have moves and countermoves to make, but the Nuggets are the first team to make a sustainable move toward slowing the opposing team’s star player. Can the Blazers do the same against Nikola Jokić? Does overcorrecting against Jokić compromise Portland’s defense everywhere else? Both are fair questions and give me confidence in Denver.

Is Aaron Gordon the “Magic Bullet” to stopping Damian Lillard, as we saw in the second half of Game 2, or is it still more of a team effort?

Knowlton: I think Aaron Gordon works on Dame sporadically throughout the game, but definitely not the whole time. As it pertains to this series, I think the more length on Lillard the better. Facu pests Lillard as best he cans, but he is too small to contests some of his shots. Aaron Gordon will be needed to keep McCollum and Powell silent, so I expect a little more Shaq Harrison on Dame and more effective defense from Austin Rivers. Facu, Gordon, Harrison, Rivers, Morris, and Howard, whoever can play any lick of perimeter defense, will be called upon to guard Dame.

Ewing: It’s definitely still a team effort, but Gordon is going to play a massive role in trying to slow down Lillard. Throwing a bunch of different looks at Lillard is key and the Nuggets have success with that in the second half of Game 2. We saw what happens when Lillard gets into a rhythm as he scored 32 points in the first half of Game 2 behind eight three-pointers because the Nuggets just let him get to comfortable. Finding a way to slow Lillard down is pretty much impossible, but at least making life a little more difficult for him is certainly something Gordon and the Nuggets as a team can do.

Lewis: He’s a bullet in Malone’s gun that can get fired, which is nice. Portland can adjust their schemes to try to combat Gordon, and then it’ll be up to the Denver coaching staff to adjust to that adjustment. I do think that if Will Barton or P.J. Dozier is able to come back, the Nuggets can make stopping Lillard more of a team effort. It’ll be too hard for Portland to constantly readjust if the Nuggets can switch different defenders onto Lillard every possession.

Blackburn: Length and athleticism go a long way toward making life more difficult for Damian Lillard. It won’t stop him, as nothing ever does, but using a defender with a competitive advantage athletically could make the difference between a three-pointer here and a drive there. Aaron Gordon has his work cut out for him, but I’m not willing to write off completely that he could slow down Lillard greatly in isolation and pick and roll situations. He will struggle containing Lillard off-ball, but if the Blazers are forced to move Dame off-ball for that reason, it’s a win for Denver.

What player on Denver, if any, are you concerned about for this series or moving forward?

Knowlton: My concern is with the scoring of players like Rivers, Green, and Morris. Monte played fantastic on Monday, but he has yet to consistently display his talents since coming off the injury. As Barton and Dozier remain out, Rivers is a starter so although he doesn't need to put up 20+, if he can hit 2-3 threes and a couple of layups it will go a long way. Denver gave JaMychal Green a 2 year $15 million contract and this is his time to prove its worth. He has the ability to make perimeter shots and rebound all of which will be important for Game 3.

Ewing: My only real concern is the Nuggets bench unit. Millsap, Green, and even Morris a little bit struggled in Game 1 and we saw what happened. The Nuggets bench was outscored by 14 points in that game, which is exactly how many points they lost the game by. In Game 2, the Nuggets bench outscored Portland 38-12 behind 15 points from Millsap, which is a trend that hopefully continues throughout the remainder of the series.

Lewis: Austin Rivers. He’s being asked to do a ton, and while he’s stepping up to the best of his ability, this is still a guy that was out of the league a few months ago. If he can hit a couple 3-pointers, defend, rebound, and not turn the ball over, the Nuggets are going to be just so much more effective. They need him to keep on being a scoring threat or the series is going to be a real challenge.

Blackburn: JaMychal Green hasn’t been close on any of his jump shots offensively. He has a role in this series as a primary defender on Carmelo Anthony and a complementary big man to Paul Millsap on the other end of the floor. It would be nice if the Nuggets had a game or two where Green hit multiple threes off the bench; however, I’m skeptical that we ever get that game. His shooting rhythm appears to have been disrupted fairly quickly and completely.

What adjustment can Denver make to their 3-point defense to slow down Portland’s potent outside shooting?

Knowlton: I think they have to give a hard hedge on these screens for Lillard. Not with McCollum or Powell yet, but they have to change the angles Lillard is offered on these screens. It is a lot easier said than done, so Dame will get his fairly comfortable sometimes but in the 4th quarter, they have to be physical on the perimeter. Great offense often beats good defense, so Portland will continue to put up points in bunches. I think it is up to the Nuggets offense to match that.

Ewing: Hope Portland starts to miss more of them. Sure, the Nuggets can close out a little better and make the Trail Blazers shot attempts a little more difficult, but they are going to make or miss them regardless of what the Nuggets do. Both teams have actually got pretty good looks from three all series long, but the Trail Blazers have just been making more of them. There really is no way to slow down an offense that’s as good as Portland’s, but getting a couple more stops per game to go along with a couple more threes a game for Denver is a recipe for success.

Lewis: Keep rotating on a string. The success rate of their attempts will vary each game, so they have to do their best to make it as difficult as possible for them to get open looks. Force the Trail Blazers to pass to Carmelo Anthony, and then hope that he’ll continue to not make the extra pass.

Blackburn: All the Nuggets can do is make the next defensive rotation as best as they can. The Blazers are an incredibly difficult team to defend because of how dangerous Lillard can be out to the logo and how much off-ball pressure players like CJ McCollum and Norman Powell put on the sides of the court. All the Nuggets can do is force the ball out of Lillard’s hands as often as they can and recover to the shooters stationed around the perimeter. They will give up the occasional wide open shot, but good rotations will force a bad shot, turnover, or 24-second violation more often than previously expected.

Nikola Jokic is the clear MVP of the series for Denver so far. Who is their sixth-man of the series?

Knowlton: I would give it to Aaron Gordon. He’s not putting up incredible offense numbers, but he has been efficient and a great rebounder. One of the X-factors in this series is CJ McCollum and he has been fairly quiet so far thanks to Aaron Gordon. While Jokic is handling the offense, Gordon is running the defense. Although Denver as a team has allowed many Portland points, Gordon has been physical and clutch on the defensive end.

Ewing: It’s a tie between Monte Morris and Paul Millsap. After struggling in Game 1, Millsap was unreal in Game 2 and was probably the difference in the Nuggets winning their first game of the series. Morris also returned to form in Game 2 and is finally starting to look like he's back to playing at full strength. Hopefully both of those players can build off what they did in Game 2 and continue to play well because the Nuggets could desperately use it.

Lewis: It’s Monte Morris for me. The Nuggets need him to get buckets off the bench, and do his best to keep up with whichever of Lillard and McCollum stays on the court for his minutes. It’s such a boost to have him out there, because he’s not going to turn the ball over and he can knock down mid-range shots. He had some nice finishes near the rim too in Game 2, and I think he’ll be able to keep getting those looks against Kanter and Nurkic.

Blackburn: Monte Morris has been steady in both games, so he gets the nod for me. The Nuggets need his consistent scoring and playmaking off the bench, and he has delivered so far, averaging 11.0 points and 6.0 assists in 26.0 minutes off the bench. That production and impact has made it easier for the Nuggets to survive their brief minutes without Nikola Jokić, and Morris has reduced the pressure on Michael Porter Jr. to be the only bench playmaker in the process.