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Stiffs Mailbag: Matching up Damian Lillard and other thoughts about Nuggets v Blazers

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Ryan answers questions about Damian Lillard and the Denver Nuggets heading into Game 6

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game Five Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Hello folks! I’m bringing back the Denver Stiffs mailbag ahead of Game 6. It’s a weird time to do so, but it’s prevalent, and Nuggets fans have a ton of thoughts. Thank you for submitting your questions! Let’s begin:


First of all, congratulations on an excellent experience for you and your son. The game on Tuesday night was absolutely incredible with all of the moments (outside of a game-winning buzzer beater) that can be shared and reminisced over forever. Dad of the Year!

There have been some high profile individual performances in playoff losses before, from Michael Jordan’s 63 points against the Boston Celtics in 1986 to Jamal Murray’s 50 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and zero turnovers in The Bubble last year. None have quite had the stakes as that masterpiece by Damian Lillard. 55 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, three blocks, 12 made threes, 17-of-24 from the field. It was honestly incredible, even for someone covering the team that he was absolutely demolishing.

Here’s the full list of players to accumulate a Game Score of 45.0 or higher (one of Basketball Reference’s metrics) in a playoff LOSS:

  • Damian Lillard (G5 Tuesday vs Denver) - 55.9
  • Hakeem Olajuwon (G6 in 1987 vs Seattle) - 48.6
  • Michael Jordan (G2 in 1986 vs Boston) - 47.2
  • Jamal Murray (G4 in 2020 vs Utah) - 45.2
  • Donovan Mitchell (G1 in 2020 vs Denver) - 45.1

It’s fair to say that, statistically, Lillard’s performance was the best of the bunch. Olajuwon and Jordan had their games in a completely different era, but Murray and Mitchell both had their games last year in The Bubble. It’s fair to say there were special circumstances in those games and that Lillard doing what he did on the road at altitude is even more insane.


I’m not a coach, and the Nuggets got the win, so it’s difficult for me to weigh in on these kinds of matters.

Personally, I vehemently disagree with Michael Malone’s thought process from Game 5. Not fouling while up three points isn’t supported in any statistical model that I have found. Malone stated quite plainly that his respect for Dame is what led him to not foul, and maybe that’s true.

But why not try to double team Dame and force the ball out of his hands? Why not send an extra body at him and make whatever shot he’s about to attempt 10 times more difficult? What’s the wort case scenario? That he draws a foul and hits a four-point play? I don’t think Denver should be living in fear there. In all likelihood, you double him, and he passes to a teammate or has to make a less difficult shot or make another rotation. The thing is, that player isn’t Damian Lillard, so you feel pretty good about it as long as whoever shoots isn’t wide open upon release.

Given the circumstances, with Dame making 12 threes in the game, I think you force anyone else to beat you late in the clock.


Shoutout SwipaCam. His YouTube content is excellent. Subscribe here and check out his Nuggets videos after every game.

The great thing about basketball versus sports like football or even soccer is how much responsibility players must have for both ends of the floor, for scoring AND defending. You have your specialists, your weak links, and players that just don’t care, but for the most part, if you don’t play both ends of the floor, you don’t win big in this game. That’s something that the Nuggets had to learn when they were one of the worst defenses in the NBA during the 2016-17 season.

The Blazers this year have mostly made it so that Lillard can conserve his energy for scoring and playmaking. He isn’t asked to defend as much, and as a result, he’s been a horrible defender for most of this season. Last night, the Nuggets took advantage of that, forcing him into actions and going at him defensively. It didn’t make a lot of difference last night with regard to Lillard’s energy levels, but if Denver had been able to do that for the entire series, it might be different.

It’s very possible that Lillard would still be doing the things that he’s doing, but watching Jokić struggle to finish games after carrying the offensive load AND guarding 50 Lillard pick and rolls or Jusuf Nurkić post ups, it would have made a big difference in my opinion. Having Jamal Murray back for this series would have been significant for sure. Lineups with two or three pick and roll threats that have to be guarded out to the three-point line would be extremely helpful because then there would be nowhere to hide.


Let’s stop and appreciate this point: we’re having an honest conversation about which guard on a two-way contract should be used to combat Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in a closeout game on the road. It’s incredible that the Nuggets are even here!

Personally, I think there’s a place for both guards in the rotation. I’d begin the game with Shaq Harrison in the first quarter and have him shadow Lillard for however long he’s out there. Lillard will play the entire first quarter and sit the beginning of the second, and having Harrison out there to help prevent him from getting free would be a strong idea on the road in my opinion.

To start the second quarter, with McCollum in and Lillard out, I think it’s safe to go with Howard. Provide spacing around Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. and perhaps a three-pointer here or there. The Blazers have to respect him, but he will be targeted defensively. Denver can make that work with Lillard off the floor, but if Lillard were doing the targeting, I wouldn’t give that a chance if I could help it.

In the second half, I would likely just go with Shaq, especially if Denver’s already ahead. Defense travels, and the Nuggets second unit being good defensively is a fundamental tenet of theirs. If the Blazers are down, expect Dame to play all 24 second half minutes. He will eventually tire if Shaq is chasing him around for that entire stretch.


I very much doubt that Green will see any crunch time minutes, barring injury. He has been a solid reserve and contributed to positive bench runs. His minutes against the Blazers frontcourt have been very good for the most part, as he has had a positive plus-minus in three of the five games, including the Game 4 blowout where nothing else went right.

However, I shudder to think about the extensive possessions with Damian Lillard, Robert Covington, and Jusuf Nurkić on the floor while Green and Jokić are both out there. That’s a lot of ground to cover for both players, and the Nuggets can’t handle both players being pressure points in rotation during clutch time. Michael Porter Jr. is actually far better suited to handle those minutes, and Aaron Gordon should be out there for perimeter defense and athleticism in his own right.

The Porter, Gordon, and Jokić frontcourt is (hopefully) going to be a Denver staple for a long time, and I don’t think Green should be the reason to break that up.


The Nuggets were on the verge of going full-bore on the Monte Morris and Jamal Murray lineup combination before acquiring Aaron Gordon at the NBA trade deadline in late March. In reality, it was Morris’ injury to open the second half of the season that prevented Denver from ever seeing that duo properly again this season, and then it was Murray’s injury that of course sealed the deal.

Projecting forward, I believe it’s likely that Monte Morris is the starting point guard of the Denver Nuggets on opening night next season. He signed a three-year extension prior to this season, and it would be odd for Denver NOT to start him while Murray is out. Going deeper than that though, as the Nuggets become more and more expensive, they have to make every single dollar count. Morris is on an affordable contract through the 2023-24 season. If I were them, I would be hoping to try the Morris-Murray starting backcourt upon Murray’s eventual return. Having Morris share the playmaking responsibilities should ease Murray’s burden to be exactly who he was when he was injured, and having a traditional point guard to run sets for all four of Murray, Porter, Gordon, and Jokić is very intriguing.

It might not be Denver’s best lineup, but Morris-Murray lineups will definitely be a thing when Murray comes back, barring unforeseen changes to the roster.


It’s a fascinating question, one layered into Denver’s entire identity.

The Nuggets have always...ALWAYS...been a team that works their hardest and performs their best with their backs against the wall. It wasn’t just about the 3-1 comebacks last year in The Bubble either. It was the run at the end of the 2017-18 season where the Nuggets needed to go undefeated against tough competition to force Game 82 against the Minnesota Timberwolves for a playoff spot. They did it, taking that game to overtime against a superior squad.

It doesn’t just show up in Denver’s triumphs either. The Nuggets have always struggled when the team is fully healthy, when things are going well. When there’s no excuse to struggle, they often find a way, especially against really bad teams. On the other end of the spectrum, when the Nuggets were shorthanded over the last several seasons, they have found new layers to their team, new ways to succeed. The Magnificent Seven game happened because of this, as has this entire 2021 playoff run without several key contributors in the backcourt.

The Nuggets aren’t frontrunners, and they may never be. It’s not in their DNA to be the top dogs. It’s why Nikola Jokić always deflects praise. It’s why the team has the mentality that they do. The Nuggets are founded upon the belief that nobody ever believed in them that nobody ever cared, and they’ve used that as motivation to prove everyone wrong.

If they lose Game 6, I won’t be surprised. They’re up 3-2. The stakes just aren’t high enough quite yet.


If Denver gets past Portland, the Phoenix Suns are an even better, more well-rounded team than the Blazers and would present different and unique challenges. Denver would be at a considerable disadvantage, given that Phoenix’s backcourt might be even better than Portland’s.

However, I’m a firm believer in karma, and I for one will not be looking past Portland after winning Game 5 and going up 3-2 in the series. The Nuggets still have one more game to win against the Blazers, and I don’t want to think about anything beyond that. The Blazers are absolutely, 100% capable of winning this series still. Any Nuggets fan that looks past the Blazers is just being foolish and tempting fate.

One game at a time, my friends. Hopefully, it’s just one game too. I don’t think my mind, body, or soul could handle Game 7.