It took a while for the Portland Trail Blazers to find out who they would face in the Western Conference semifinals. Portland took care of the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games last Tuesday, giving the Trail Blazers plenty of time to rest before the start of the second round. It was only late Saturday night that they found out they would be taking on the Denver Nuggets.
Denver needed seven games to get past a game San Antonio Spurs team despite being the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
The Spurs continually flummoxed the Nuggets like Gregg Popovich teams are wont to do, and they needed a gritty defensive performance to eventually vanquish the Spurs in the NBA’s only seven game series of the first round.
This is the most evenly priced series of the first round. Denver would have likely been a bigger favorite a couple weeks ago, but Portland’s impressive series win over Oklahoma City has affected the odds. The Nuggets are -140 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Regular Season Meetings
The Nuggets won three of the four games between these two teams in the regular season. However, these games were close, and Denver outscored Portland by just six points in all four games combined.
Portland Trail Blazers Analysis
Damian Lillard launched his stock into the stratosphere in Portland’s first round series win against Oklahoma City. Lillard continually got the better of Russell Westbrook throughout the series, and his 50-point performance in Game 5 capped off by a 37-foot three-pointer set the internet abuzz.
Lillard is the key to Portland’s offense. The Trail Blazers depend on guard play like no other team, and the two biggest weapons on this team for the last few years have been Lillard and CJ McCollum. Both players hit better than 45 percent from three in the last series, and they need to continue to play at a high level as this team doesn’t have a real interior presence.
Jusuf Nurkic had been the team’s best big man all year prior to suffering a devastating lower leg injury in late March. Nurkic might not play next year as he recovers from the injury, and his absence was thought to be a death knell for Portland’s chances. He was seen as a lesser version of Denver’s Nikola Jokic for his ability to doll out dimes, and that was a decent chunk of Portland’s offense.
Portland decided to roll the dice with Enes Kanter in the first round, and that decision paid huge dividends. Kanter was picked up off waivers by the Trail Blazers in mid-February, and he proved that he could be a huge weapon against the Thunder. He has long been labeled as a defensive disaster, but he was able to hold his own on defense, and the Blazers took advantage of his huge offensive upside. Kanter averaged a double-double in the OKC series.
Denver Nuggets Analysis
The Nuggets offense has run through Nikola Jokic all year long. Jokic is a perfect big man for today’s NBA, where teams try to spread opponents out and shoot a lot of threes. He has vision unlike any other big man in the league, and he was a triple-double threat throughout the Nuggets’ first round series. His three-way line of 23.1 PPG, 12.1 RPG, and 9.1 APG in that series shows how much of a role he plays in Denver’s offense.
One of Denver’s perimeter shooters needs to step up in this series. Jokic is able to give a lot of his teammates great looks, but the Nuggets’ shooting was hit or miss throughout the first round and nearly led to an early exit for Denver. Jamal Murray wasn’t particularly great, and Will Barton had an abysmal shooting performance throughout the series. Gary Harris was the only guard that shot relatively well, and the Nuggets need more of that.
This is a team that relies on defense, and Denver is fantastic in guarding the perimeter. They have the second-best three-point defense in the NBA, allowing opponents to hit just 33.9 percent of threes on the season, and they will need to defend the three against Lillard and McCollum.
Rest is going to play a big factor initially in this series. Portland has a great chance to take Game 1 as Denver had only one day of rest between the end of its series with San Antonio and this series.
However, I think Denver will eventually turn the tide in this series. Their ability to close out on the perimeter will be huge, and Jokic will have a field day with a Portland team that doesn’t have good interior defending. I see Denver winning this series in six games.