Out of all four second-round playoff series currently in action, this one feels the most unpredictable.
Denver took Game 1 121-113 at home, before the Trailblazers struck back 97-90 in Game 2 to level the series heading back to Portland.
Game 3 saw one of the wildest encounters in NBA history. Clutch shot after clutch shot from both teams down the stretch resulted in 4 overtime periods; the Blazers eventually prevailing thanks to a Rodney Hood (of all people) three with 20 seconds remaining in 4OT.
The Nuggets, despite several of their stars playing 60+ minutes, then struck back less than 41 hours later to even the ledger with a clutch 116-112 win in Portland on Sunday afternoon.
With the series locked at 2-2 it’s now the perfect time for both sides to take stock and work out where to go from here.
What do both teams need to do to advance the Western Conference Finals? Let’s find out!
1. Get Nikola Jokic some rest
The 7-foot Serbian behemoth is in the midst of a breakout postseason campaign, but the intensity of the playoffs coupled with the amount of time he’s spending on the floor is a recipe for disaster.
Jokic (likely a top 5 regular-season MVP candidate) is averaging over 45 minutes per game in this series, despite playing only a little over 31 minutes per game in 80 regular season appearances.
That minute average is slightly inflated by a 65-minute marathon shift in quadruple overtime, but even removing Game 3 Jokic is still averaging 39 minutes of court time per game in the series.
That stark of an increase form regular season to postseason has to be a concern for the Nuggets training staff, particularly when the 249-pound centre has never exactly been the picture of bouncy athleticism:
The problem is Denver just have no one else who can provide meaningful minutes at the centre position. Mason Plumlee is playing 16 minutes per game off the bench, but is offering nothing in the way of offense (4.8 points, 4.3 rebounds) and Paul Millsap is a quality power forward, but standing at 6 foot 6 he just doesn’t have the height to match up with Enes Kanter (6 foot 9) on defense.
Jokic’s 26.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game are irreplaceable, but if the Nuggets don’t find a way to get him more down time then they’re at risk of running the big guy in to the ground.
2. Stop Enes Kanter on the inside
He may not be quite at the level of the injured Jusuf Nurkic, but Enes Kanter is showing how valuable his offensive skillset can be on the big stage.
It came out today that the 6-foot 9 Turkish power forward would be observing Ramadan throughout the NBA playoffs, but the Nuggets are going to need more than a lack of blood-glucose to slow him down.
Kanter is averaging 16 points and rebounds per game this series in 37 minutes of playing time, but showed what could happen when he’s let off the chain with 26 points on 11-14 shooting in Game 1.
In their crucial Game 4 win the Nuggets held Kanter to just 5 points on 5 shots and a plus/minus of -11. What they seem to finally be realising is that outside of Lillard, McCollum and Kanter ,the Blazers have very little in the way of offensive firepower in their starting 5.
Al-Farouq Aminu is a serviceable shooter from the corner but can’t do much else and the Blazers’ other starter Mo Harkless is averaging just 6.5 points in the series.
If Denver can clog the lane and force the ball out of the two guards’ hands, whilst continuing to deny Kanter the ball like in Game 4, it’ll go a long way towards securing them the series.
1. Get Logo Lillard going with outside shooting off the bench
We’ve come to expect the unexpected from Dame in the post-season, and while he’s still averaging 27.3 points per game in this series, that feels underwhelming from the Blazers’ main man.
Against OKC in Round 1 Lillard was dropping an outrageous 33 points per game on 62.4% true shooting. Of course, it’s unreasonable for Portland to hope for shooting like that in every round of the playoffs, but a drop to a 55.1 true shooting percentage would be concerning for the coaching staff.
As mentioned above, the Nuggets have picked their poison on defence, and are allowing open shots to Aminu and Harkless as a trade-off for Millsap and Jokic clogging the lane and denying Lillard his usual passage to the rim.
When Lillard can’t get to the rim his primary defender can afford to be more aggressive on the perimeter. Gary Harris has been invaluable as a deterrent on the outside, but the simple fact is that Lillard also just isn’t shooting as well as he normally does – he’s hitting just 25.7% of his long range tries and 35% from midrange this series, as opposed to 36.9% from 3 and 46.1% from midrange in the regular season.
One thing the Blazers are clearly trying – evident in Games 3 & 4 – is going small to try and combat Denver sagging off Aminu and Harkless on the outside. Rodney Hood and Seth Curry have both played big minutes in consecutive games, whilst we also saw 21 minutes’ worth of Zach Collins in Game 4.
Curry showed his outside capabilities with 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting in Game 4, and Hood’s 19 points in the Game 3 win will long be remembered by Blazers fans. Collins only took 5 shots in Game 4 but at least his outside shooting (in contrast to Kanter) is competent enough that the Nuggets need to pay attention to him when Lillard or McCollum drive inside.
That opens up the dish to Aminu in the dunker’s position, and obviously if Lillard can get to the rim more often that opens up his renowned outside game.
It’ll just take some creativity from coach Terry Stotts, and some faith in the bench guys.
2. Pour some cold water on Jamal Murray
The worst kept secret in the NBA is that Jamal Murray is the barometer for this Nuggets team.
When he plays well, they win. If he’s off the boil, they’re beatable by any team in the league.
The third-year guard averaged 19.5 points in Nuggets wins this regular season, and just 15.8 in losses. In the postseason that split has become even more pronounced; 25.2 points in wins and just 17.6 in losses.
The equation for Denver’s opponents is thus pretty simple – stop Murray and you stop the Nuggets. The Trailblazers are allowing Murray to shoot 44.7% from the floor so far this series. While that’s above his regular season average of 43.7%, the real difference is that the Nuggets’ point guard is taking more than 21 shots per game – well above his regular season average of 15.6. That’s just too many shots for a guy with Murray’s shooting ability, and Portland cannot allow him to continue flinging the rock at that rate if they want to win two more games in this series.
Nuggets in 7.
Denver’s young stars in Murray and Jokic are breaking out in a big way this postseason. The Nuggets seem to have unlocked the key to corralling Lillard and McCollum, and unless the Blazers’ supporting cast can find a way to start hitting shots consistently, it’s tough to see them winning 2 out of 3 games without the benefit of home advantage.
Denver just need to win two games at home to take the series. For a team that was 34-7 at home this regular season, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Written for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds