Give me two sentences on Game 5
Jeremy Poley (@JeremyPoley): Damian repeatedly smashes cheat button on a game Jokic made. A game Jokic made.
Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): Damian Lillard made me age ten years in ten game minutes. Nikola Jokic showed why he is the MVP of the league.
Tommy Knowlton (@TommyKnow303): Jokic is willing a team with 3rd string guards in their starting lineup to playoff victories. Lillard’s performance was the best I have ever seen.
Who is your series MVP for Denver so far not named Nikola Jokic or Michael Porter Jr.?
Poley: Several guys are deserving of it, either for their consistency like Facundo Campazzo and Aaron Gordon, or showing up when they were needed like Austin Rivers and Monte Morris. The guy I’m going to give this award to is someone whose name conjures up a bad pass, a missed layup and a David-Copperfield-ish impression of a disappearing 3-point shot for me this series. But I believe that’s more due to his lack of playing time (lowest out of any Nuggets rotation player this series at 13.3 minutes per game) and how strongly bad moments can persist in memory. That being said, he’s ranked 4th overall in the entire NBA playoffs for offensive rating. His net rating is highest on the team (which means whatever the increment above “nothing” means, as Jokic is sitting at a Beta-nightclub-back-alley-after-party -7.5 and no one cares). He has high ratings across the board, leading the team in offensive and defensive rebounding percentages and holding 4th in assist ratio. In a series that has seen balance between both team’s starters, the Nuggets have won the battle of the benches. It’s easy to forget how important 13 of every 48 minutes can be, especially after the ups and downs from the haymakers that the starting units have thrown back and forth. But Paul Millsap has stepped in an asserted an authority on offense against the Portland bench. Whether running actions on the perimeter (weird, but okay), or forcing his way into the paint after the Nuggets get scared of going into it, Millsap’s impact has set the tone for the four next to him and won the forgotten battleground of the starless minutes. It’s been just enough that the starters have needed to finish the job off so far. He was big the last time the Nuggets matched up against the Trail Blazers in a playoff series, and he might not deserve another minute purely based on matchups, but the 13 he’s admirably averaged have been strong, steady and winning.
Lewis: Austin Rivers. He’s stepped up in a huge way as a starter, shooting 48 percent on his 3-point attempts while being tasked to guard Lillard in the closing minutes of games. He’s being asked to attack the rim off the dribble, and play big minutes. He’s been incredible.
Knowlton: I think Morris and Rivers deserve my vote for Denver, but I’m going to take it a different route. CJ McCollum is my series MVP for the Nuggets. He hasn’t had one of those 30+ performances we’ve seen in prior playoff series yet, and if he did, this series would look completely different. We’ve seen Powell show up for a couple of games, but CJ McCollum was not effective last night and has been average in this series so far. If he performs up to his potential in Game’s 6 and 7 I think Portland wins the series as unhealthy as Denver is. With that being said, I think Gordon and Denver's guards have done a good job defending him. If they can continue that in Game 6, the Nuggets could avoid a Game 7 and advance.
Would you rather have Will Barton or P.J. Dozier back for Game 6 & 7 and why?
Poley: When your big defensive move is putting your power forward on the opposing team’s point guard, you know you need perimeter defense. My mind goes right to P.J. Dozier for this. We’ve watched him grow into an intimidating balance of size, athleticism, quickness and intelligence as a perimeter defender. Before his injury he was cruising along as a top 10 guard defender according to ESPN’s DRPM and the eye-test has matched that. Granted, if there’s one thing Barton can do on the defensive side of the ball it’s lock up a streetball-style iso. That’s not exactly what Dame, CJ & Powell are doing, but Barton would still likely be a positive addition here. Still, if I have to choose one right now it would be Dozier.
Lewis: Barton. The Nuggets are able to get by on defense by executing, and the Trail Blazers defense is so bad that they’re managing to win games. If Barton was able to come in and add his ability to get to the rim to the team, this series will be over. Dozier’s individual defense is good, but have you seen the shots Lillard is hitting? Might not matter!
Knowlton: This is a tough one. I’m going with PJ Dozier. Barton is a volume scorer and is not in game shape yet, so it might take him a couple of games to be effective offensively. He is also a ball stopper at times, so if he is missing shots they might not be able to keep up with Portland’s offense. If he is ready to go and effective, he is the more important player but I predict he will need a game or two to regain form. It will also take Dozier a couple of games to get in shape again, but he is more of a defender and plays within the offense most of the time. He is aggressive offensively in spots, but he is not the volume shooter Barton is, so his contributions will mainly be driving to the rim and defense. This would be important for Denver because they would like another big body offensively and to guard McCollum and Powell, plus it offers Gordon more time on Lillard.
If Denver wins this series, how far can they go in the playoffs?
Poley: There’s still a real path to the finals. We beat Utah just last year. We beat the Clippers just last year. Our regular season record was clearly better than the Mavs. The Lakers have regrown every hair I’ve lost watching the Nuggets play the Trail Blazers. And the Suns are the new team with everything left to prove. As far as a championship goes? The logic starts to break down when you put a starting lineup of Jokic and 4 new starters from last season against Durant, Irving, Harden and the Nets. Maybe some magic happens and the 76ers win the East? That would be a matchup that would give me more hope for a finals that could net a championship.
Lewis: All the way to the NBA Finals. They’d probably have to beat the Jazz in seven games, but with Dozier and Barton likely back for that series, how do you pick against the Nuggets?
Knowlton: Well if Phoenix advances past the Lakers, they could make it all the way to the Finals. I don’t think it will happen but it could. If they get healthy with Dozier and Barton in a Phoenix series they could advance and then face an all too familiar Jazz team. If I think with my mind not my heart, I think we could beat Phoenix if healthy but would lose to the Jazz. We shouldn’t sleep on Phoenix though. Denver hasn’t found a way to beat the Lakers consistently, but the Suns are doing so right now, so they are a tough out. If the Lakers come back in that series, we’re most likely getting bounced in that round. LeBron and Davis should be more healthy if they get to the second round, and Denver has never found a way to beat the Lakers in the playoffs. Yet. We will see.
Final prediction for the series. Does Denver close it out, or do the Blazers win two straight to knock the Nuggets out for the second time in three seasons?
Poley: If we didn’t learn by the end of game 4, every one of these games is going to have a different, unpredictable storyline. Winning last night was everything. I’m going purely with maths here and giving it to the team that is up 3-2. I guess the numbers would dictate another win for Portland and then game 7 for the Nuggets.
Lewis: Portland isn’t winning another game. Nuggets in six.
Knowlton: Every time both teams play desperate they win. Portland will do so at home, so I give them Game 6. I would not be shocked if they win Game 7 either, but I think Jokic and Porter shine on the biggest stage. I’m sticking to my series prediction, Nuggets in 7.