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Mile Highs and Lows: A recap of the Denver Nuggets in May

This past month, the Denver Nuggets wrapped up their regular season and are now deep into their first round series against their old rival, the Portland Trail Blazers

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This month, the NBA regular season came to an end and the Denver Nuggets started their playoff journey against, once again, the Portland Trail Blazers. Just like the second round series in 2019 against this team, this one seems to have the potential to go the distance, as the Blazers tied it up 2-2 in Game 4. With the Nuggets being without three of their top guards in this series, nobody really knew what to expect from the Nuggets headed into the first round, but with Nikola Jokic absolutely dominating the way he has all season, and the team getting some good performances from their role players, it seems that it may have been a poor decision by some to completely count this team out. The series heads back to Denver for Game 6 tonight, and it sure feels like the winner of this game will have the best shot at advancing to the second round. Let’s hope the home team can get it done.

Series record: 2-2

Highlight of the Month: Michael Porter Jr. makes effort play that leads to poster dunk by Shaquille Harrison

In Game 2, Michael Porter Jr. showed that he can do more than just score in an effortless manner. In the fourth quarter, MPJ dived on the floor to get a steal on C.J. McCollum, and then threw the ball ahead to Monte Morris in the open court. Morris then made a pass to Shaquille Harrison, who flushed the poster dunk on McCollum despite the foul. It was a huge play that allowed the Nuggets to keep the momentum going in the right direction en route to their first win in the series. The effort from MPJ in this play even earned praise from Michael Malone in his postgame press conference.

Game of the Month: Game 3, Denver Nuggets (120) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (115)

With each team winning a game in Denver and the series tied 1-1, the Nuggets knew they needed to win in Portland in order to reclaim home court advantage and give themselves a chance at winning the series. They got down to business right away, coming out strong in Game 3 behind another dominant performance from Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets got off to a less-than-ideal start as they struggled to contain the Blazers’ guards. C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Norman Powell were scorching from the field in the opening minutes and the Blazers got off to a 19-8 lead. However, the Nuggets quickly fought back before the game got out of control, and after the quarter ended with the Nuggets leading 39-30, the Blazers were never able to get over the hump to regain the lead.

In the fourth quarter, it became more and more likely that Lillard’s hot shooting would lead his team to the win in a close game unless someone stepped up in a big way for the Nuggets. Jokic finished the game with an incredible stat line of 36 points, 5 assists and 11 rebounds, but it was the three-point shooting of Austin Rivers that really secured the win for the Nuggets. Every time the Blazers inched closer and seemed on the verge of making a comeback, Rivers hit a three that created distance for the Nuggets. He finished with 21 points on 7/14 shooting, 5/10 from three. Not bad for a guy that wasn’t in the league a couple months ago.

Player of the month: Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic, at least for the first three games of this series, has proven to be unstoppable. In those three games, Jokic averaged 36 points per game and 11.7 rebounds as he carried his team to a 2-1 series lead against the Blazers. It becomes clearer and clearer with each game that Jokic is completely capable of leading a depleted Nuggets team to a first round series win. While Jokic struggled in Game 4 in which the Blazers blew the Nuggets out, that just furthers the point that if Jokic is not playing at an MVP level, this shorthanded team does not have enough firepower to compete against the Blazers. However, with Jokic scoring at will and winning the matchup against Jusuf Nurkic, not even Damian Lillard scoring 42 points as he did in Game 2 is enough to put the Nuggets away.

Much attention was drawn to the fact that Jokic only had one assist in Game 1, a very uncharacteristic thing to see from the big man. Jokic’s assist numbers overall in this series so far have taken a dip, as he has averaged only 3 assists a game. This seems to be in large part because the Blazers have opted not to double-team Jokic whenever possible, and the 2021 MVP has been very good about making them pay so far, as evidenced by his points per game average in the series. The Nuggets obviously are without their second-leading scorer in Murray, and are having to rely on young and inexperienced players to play key roles. Therefore, whatever happens in this series, I think it’s safe to say that Jokic will have to continue to dominate on offense if the Nuggets want to advance. If the first four games are any indication, I think the Nuggets are in good hands.

Story of the Month: Nuggets in another competitive series against Portland Trail Blazers

The Nuggets finished the season with the 3rd spot in the Western Conference, an incredible feat considering that they were actually lower in the standings before Jamal Murray, P.J. Dozier and Will Barton went down. The Portland Trail Blazers finished the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the league, climbing the standings to earn the 6th spot and a matchup against the Nuggets. The last time these two teams matched up in the playoffs in 2019, the series went the full distance before the Blazers secured a ticket to the Western Conference Finals in a Game 7 win on the Nuggets’ home court. Two years later, and the Nuggets have a chance to avenge this defeat.

The Blazers, due to a strong second half performance, came away with a Game 1 victory and stole home court. It seemed that the Nuggets, without their second best player in Murray and two of their other top guards, might be in trouble if they could not find a solution to the Blazers’ hot shooting. In Game 2, Damian Lillard could not miss in the first half, especially from three-point range. However, Michael Malone decided to start Aaron Gordon on Lillard in the second half, and he had a much harder time scoring for the rest of the game. This allowed the Nuggets to tie the series up going into Portland.

The Nuggets did what they were supposed to in Game 3, regaining home court advantage and going up 2-1 for the first time in the Jokic era. With the Nuggets having an opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 series lead against the Blazers in Game 4, the Nuggets did not come with the right intensity to get it done. The game was a blowout as Jokic and the squad struggled immensely on offense and could not find an answer to contain Norman Powell on the other end. Now, the Nuggets head back home for an opportunity to once again take the series lead. Hopefully the extended time between Games 4 and 5 will allow Will Barton to introduce himself to this series after rehabbing a hamstring injury. He could provide much-needed scoring and energy that the team will need to advance past the first round.

Surprise of the month: The Nuggets are relying on players you never would have guessed would be getting minutes in the playoffs

With the injuries to Will Barton, P.J. Dozier and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets needed backup at the guard position. When it was confirmed that they would be playing one of the best backcourts in the entire league, the one question heading into this series was whether or not the Nuggets could get enough from their new additions to get past the Blazers. The Nuggets signed Shaquille Harrison on April 9th to a two-way contract, and despite being so new to the team, he has made quite the impact on the defensive end in the few minutes that he has played in this series. In Game 2, when Lillard was hitting everything from the three-point range, Michael Malone subbed in Harrison to try to lock down Lillard for the last few possessions of the first half. He did everything he was sent in to do and more, and the fact that the Nuggets were able to maintain control of the game going into halftime was a huge reason why the Nuggets won the game.

Rookie Markus Howard, also on a two-way contract, has been in the rotation so far this postseason, which is really crazy to think about considering that he has only played in garbage time this season. Howard has also stepped up in these minutes, proving that he can be relied upon to hit threes off the bench when needed. Finally, the Nuggets have needed the contributions of Austin Rivers, who was unsigned before the Nuggets snatched him up heading into the postseason. Rivers has been just what the team has needed - a spark on the offensive end that can also help defend the Blazers’ guards. This was never more evident than in the team’s Game 3 win in which he hit clutch shot after clutch shot to help the Nuggets take a 2-1 series lead. None of these players were in the rotation before Murray’s injury, so the fact that they are all playing regular minutes in a very tight and competitive series is really impressive.

Grade for the month: B

What’s new on Denver Stiffs:

The Stiffs once again have you covered for all the content you could possibly desire as the regular season came to a close and the playoffs began.

In this episode of the Chick N’ Nuggets podcast, Jena Garcia talks with Altitude TV producer and editor Taylor Vincek about her experience in the bubble last year with the Denver Nuggets

Ryan Blackburn dives into Nikola Jokic’s ability to make tough shots and how that will help the Nuggets in the playoffs

Brandon Ewing highlights what will be one of the most important factors in this series vs. the Blazers...the bench

Evan FIala reacts to the first game in the Blazers series and what this matchup means for the Nuggets and their fans

Tommy Knowlton looks at expert predictions for all first round series, noting that it was a pretty even split between those that picked the Blazers, and those that picked the Nuggets

Prior to the start of the first round, the Stiffs presented this round table in which the writers try to predict several outcomes of the series

Gage Bridgford previewed the Blazers, Nuggets series in this edition of Film Friday, highlighting the team’s priorities going into the first round

Brandon Ewing asked some important questions to Steve Dewald of Blazers Edge prior to the start of the first round in order to gain some insight into the Nuggets’ first round opponent

In this article, Tommy Knowlton explored what to expect from the two best players heading into the Blazers and Nuggets series, and how each will be sure to impact their teams

Ryan Blackburn takes a look at Michael Porter Jr’s shot profile in this piece, complete with clips from this season

Brandon Ewing pays tribute to Nikola Jokic in this piece in which he shares his thoughts on the absolute incredible season from the likely 2021 MVP