Northwest division rivalries. Superstar players. Deep supporting casts. The first-round matchup between the third-seed Denver Nuggets and the sixth-seed Portland Trail Blazers will have plenty of talking points and is shaping up to be a thriller.
NBA Playoffs Preview: Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers
Strong Regular Seasons
Both teams had strong regular seasons and performed to their expectations more or less. The Nuggets, led by MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic, have still looked elite without Jamal Murray. Murray, a crucial part of the team, will miss the entire playoffs due to injury.
Portland struggled to open the season but bounced back nicely towards the end. They avoided the play-in game, which certainly would’ve been a nightmare to prepare for against Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Denver finished the season with a 47-25 record. They also won the season serious versus Portland by a 2-1 margin. Their one loss came in the last game of the season, and many may argue that was a scheduled loss for seeding purposes.
Portland finished the season at 42-30. This gives them the same record as the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers, but they finished in the middle of those two teams. Portland only went 6-6 in their division, but in fairness, the division includes top teams like the Nuggets and Utah Jazz.
There’s plenty of intrigue on this side of the ball in this match-up. For starters, of course, the Nuggets have Jokic. It’s rare to see a center control the entire offense and be one of the best passers in the league, but that’s what makes Jokic so special. That, of course, and his ability to score and rebound with the best of them. Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game this season. Jokic can’t be stopped, one can only hope to slightly slow him down.
Besides Jokic, the Nuggets are very strong in the other frontcourt positions. Michael Porter is breaking out as a legitimate prospect and has a heavy load to shoulder after Murray’s injury. He’s stepped up nicely and is the clear second-option on offense. He can play both forward spots due to his superb athleticism and ability to stretch the floor. Denver also traded for Aaron Gordon this season, who will prove to be a difference-maker due to his ability to play the four and on the wing. Rounding up their depth, Denver also has veterans in Paul Millsap and JaVale McGee.
Portland isn’t light on the frontcourt either. For starters, they feature a terrific one-two punch at the center position with Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter. Both bring a unique skill set to the table, and Portland will have to constantly rotate between the two to keep their energy up in the pursuit to stop Jokic. At the four, Robert Covington is a jack-of-all-trades on the defensive side of the court, while Carmelo Anthony brings a veteran presence and clutch shooting. Lastly, Norman Powell features at small-forward due to a crowded backcourt. Powell is a terrific scorer, and Porter will have his hands full guarding him.
Jokic, however, is the league’s MVP-frontrunner and nearly impossible to stop. He’ll make sure the rest of the Nuggets frontcourt steps up.
Advantage: Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets took a massive blow with Murray’s season-ending injury. He was spectacular in last seasons’ playoffs and will be sorely missed. With his absence, the Nuggets playmaking runs through Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris. Both are solid in their own respects, but not nearly as talented as Murray. This puts a heavier load on Jokic to be the primary playmaker.
Will Barton is a notable two-way option and an underrated scorer. He’s still recovering from a hamstring injury, but there’s hope he’ll be ready for this series. Denver will need him, or they’ll have to dive deep into their depth that features the likes of Austin Rivers and Shaquille Harrison.
The backcourt is Portland’s bread and butter. Damian Lillard is a bonafide superstar and one of the most elite scorers in league history. Yes, not just modern history but league history. His athleticism, explosiveness of the dribble, long-range shooting, and playmaking make him an All-NBA stud and impossible to slow down. His backcourt sidekick, CJ McCollum, is also a fantastic scorer and a great defender. The duo can combine for 60 points on any given night, so Denver’s defense will have its hands full. Portland’s depth isn’t too impressive in this department, but Lillard and McCollum will play the bulk of the minutes. As long as one is on the floor, the Trail Blazers are in good hands.
Advantage: Portland Trail Blazers.
Coaching and Intangibles
Mike Malone remains one of the league’s most underrated coaches in Denver. Very little is ever spoken of him, yet the Nuggets make the playoffs time and time again as a legitimate threat. A lot of Jokic’s development can also be attributed to Malone. Even when Murray went down, Malone kept this team afloat and playing fantastic basketball. His “next man up” mentality, paired with Jokic’s play, makes the Nuggets a nightmare match-up for anyone.
Terry Stotts, on the other hand, is another example of a long-time underrated coach. He’s terrific in the sense that the Trail Blazers consistently make the playoffs and overcome injuries. He’s even taken Portland out of the first-round multiple times, and to a Conference Final versus the Warriors. The coaching duel in this match-up is relatively even.
The main intangible in this series, however, is Jokic. With all due respect to Lillard, who can score 40-50 at any time to lead Portland to victory, teams know what’s coming when they play him. Jokic is unpredictable in the sense that he can do everything. His nonchalant playstyle is also unpredictable. There’s a reason why he’s the MVP-frontrunner.
Advantage: Denver Nuggets.
Final Prediction: Denver Nuggets in Seven
This will surely be one of the most entertaining first-round series. Portland will pour in the points, while Jokic will dazzle and figure out how to get the Nuggets over the hump. Denver showed little reason why they should be doubted even after Murray’s absence, making them the favorite in this match-up.
Lillard, however, will fight tooth and nail to take this to seven games.
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