Five Thoughts: Nuggets vs Blazers
As the Western Conference Semi-Final between the Nuggets and the Trailblazers returns to Denver, the series has been reduced to a best-of-three. The teams have been as equal as possible, with Denver leading 464-462 after four games and four OTs. What small adjustments will lead to the razor thin margin sure to differentiate these rivals?
1. The Men in the Middle
The longer this series goes, the more the Blazers miss Jusuf Nurkic. Enes Kanter, as talented a post-scorer as he is, and as active a rebounder as he may be, is no match for Nikola Jokic inside. The only players who can negate the Joker’s impact have the size and strength to stand up to him physically -- and Kanter lacks either the skill or the will to bang with Jokic, so the Denver star has been having his way this series. He’s nearing a triple-double for the series, averaging 26.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game, while shooting 52% from the field overall and 57% (!!!!!!) from downtown. While Denver is developing some answers to the Portland approach, the Blazers have no solutions to Jokic. They’ll need some if they hope to stand a chance.
2. Sub-Zero / Lukewarm
It speaks to the level to which the stars across the league elevate their level of play in the playoffs that I’m about to get on Damian Lillard’s case for putting up only a 27.3-4.0-6.3 through the first four games. Here’s the thing: when Dame coldly snatched the Thunders’ souls from their bodies at the end of Game 5, he put the finishing touches on a masterpiece of a series. Against Oklahoma City, Lillard rocked a 33.0-4.4-6.0, while shooting 48% from three; this series he hasn’t been able to top 26% from deep. He hasn’t been the same player, to say the least. When Lillard was playing at his best, the Blazers pulled away from the Thunder. Now that he’s playing back at his human level, Portland is in a dogfight with a very talented foe.
3. 6th Men
Give Rodney Hood credit for turning his postseason reputation entirely around in the span of a mere year. After notoriously refusing to enter the garbage time of a Cavs’ blowout, Hood seemed to have sealed a reputation as a postseason no-show, but Portland would be lost this series without Hood’s contributions off the bench. Game 4 was the first game of the series in which Hood scored in single digits - he has brought energy and accuracy to his appearances, hitting over 57% from the field and from downtown alike.
Give Will Barton credit for accepting a demotion from his starting forward spot to first man off the bench. When the Nuggets trailed the Spurs 2-1 in the first round, the Nuggets sent Barton to the bench and returned Torrey Craig to the starting line-up. The move paid dividends in helping the Nuggets win that round in seven, and the Nuggets sensibly stayed with it, with Barton becoming increasingly comfortable in his role as the playoffs continue. After averaging just a 8.0-4.4-1.6 in the first round, he’s up to 11.5-6.5-2.0 against Portland. Which bench leader can hold the fort longer when the starters are out will play an outsize role in determining which team advances.
4. Who’s Got the Legs?
Denver put up one of the more impressive wins of the playoffs when they bounced back from the disappointment of the 4-OT loss by winning the next match-up in Portland. As the series goes back to the Mile High City, how will the altitude affect the teams? Neither team played more than nine players in the slugfest of Game 3, and Lillard-McCollum-Jokic-Murray averaged roughly 60 minutes played. These may be professional athletes in peak physical condition -- except Jokic, of course -- but someone will tire first in Game 5, and that team will be looking at a ‘Win or Go Home’ Game 6.
5. Jump Accomplished
At the beginning of the playoffs, ‘Jamal Murray’ was hardly a name to be lumped in with the sport’s best, but is certainly making himself well-known now. After a roller-coaster round 1, Murray has settled in to be a very capable 1B to Jokic 1A. Way back at the beginning of the season, I knew that Jamal Murray’s advancement would be one of the keys to the team’s success. Seeing Murray today, it’s no wonder the team is on the precipice of the Western Conference Finals.