Nuggets-Trail Blazers scouting report: Matchups, predictions and five things to watch

Who has the edge?

Guards: The triumvirate of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Norm Powell is among the most feared backcourts in the NBA, let alone in comparison to the Nuggets’ bunch. Lillard’s range begins as soon as he steps over halfcourt, and no one needs a reminder of the damage McCollum can inflict in the mid-range. His epic 37-point performance in Game 7 of the 2019 conference semifinals vs. Denver might’ve been the defining game of his career so far. Since Powell was acquired, he, Lillard and McCollum have accounted for more than 22 3-point attempts per game. The Nuggets counter with rookie Facundo Campazzo, free agent signee Austin Rivers, steady backup Monte Morris and defensive ace Shaq Harrison. Although Denver could’ve done much worse than those four given their circumstances, the Nuggets are in trouble if any of those three catch a rhythm from outside. Edge: Blazers

Wings: Portland’s heavy emphasis on guard play leaves 6-foot-7 Robert Covington as the Blazers’ lone starting wing. He’ll have an outsized role, though, as it’ll be his responsibility to contain Denver’s flame-throwing forward, Michael Porter Jr. Covington’s already giving up a few inches to Porter, who has admitted he rarely sees defenders in his shooting window. If Porter shoots anything like he did since the All-Star break (46% from 3), the Nuggets might have a rebuttal to Lillard’s range. Denver’s other wing, Aaron Gordon, could be an X-factor on both ends of the court. He’s more than capable of locking up guards on defense, and if Covington is on Porter, that would leave Powell on Gordon. If that’s the case, the Nuggets would be wise to pick on that matchup and feed Gordon in the post. Edge: Nuggets

Big men: Just because Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic have said all the right things and appear to be friendly off the court doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way in the thick of a series. Both are physical, imposing big men who don’t like being moved off their spots. Plus, they’ve got a little bit of history. Of the two, Jokic is more lithe and excels at keeping aggressive big men off balance. But Nurkic (and Portland in general) has given the Nuggets trouble on the offensive glass. In two meetings this season, Nurkic has 10 offensive rebounds. Given how many 3-pointers the Blazers take (41 per game), it’s a safe bet that whoever wins the rebounding battle will win the series. Jokic hasn’t found his 3-point stroke against Portland this season (26%), however he did drop 41 points against them in February with Nurkic out. Edge: Nuggets

Bench: Despite their injuries, the Nuggets might actually be deeper than Portland, which may or may not help owing to shorter rotations in the playoffs. Morris, on the mend since returning from a hamstring strain, should steady Denver’s reserves and galvanize a unit with veterans JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap. If the Nuggets are getting beat on the glass, perhaps by elite offensive rebounder Enes Kanter, they always have the option to turn to JaVale McGee. Will Barton’s potential return gives the Nuggets yet another playmaker off the bench. All Portland has is one of the NBA’s all-time great scorers in Carmelo Anthony waiting to go off against his former team. Water under the bridge, right? Edge: Nuggets

RELATED: NBA playoffs gambling guide: Nuggets odds, series breakdown, and prop bets to watch

Coaches: Both Michael Malone and Terry Stotts have navigated their respective clubs through significant injuries and adversity. Can Stotts get the ball out of Jokic’s hands and force Denver’s role players to beat the Blazers? Can Malone compel his guards to make Lillard and McCollum uncomfortable from outside? The Nuggets have the 11th-ranked 3-point defense in the NBA, but this first-round series is going to test them. These two teams are so familiar with each other it’s possible a new wrinkle could swing the series. We’ll find out in about a week and a half who’s the better tactician. Edge: Even

— Mike Singer, The Denver Post

Five things to watch

1. Playoff Joker

Nikola Jokic has appeared in 33 career NBA playoff games with the following statistical averages: 24.7 points, 11.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists. The Nuggets are 16-17 in those games. Now, the likely MVP carries Denver with an even heavier burden following the injury loss of starting point guard Jamal Murray (torn ACL) — among other injuries. Jokic must be at his best if the Nuggets are to make a deep postseason run.

2. Closing games

Without Murray, the Nuggets lose one of their best crunch-time scorers, especially in recent playoff memory. Jokic will undoubtedly draw late-game attention from the Blazers in predictably close games. Will Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, or Facundo Campazzo emerge to make big shots in the biggest moments? We will soon find out whether the Nuggets are truly deep enough to win a title.

3. Guard the perimeter

The biggest test facing the Nuggets in the first round is stopping Portland’s dynamic three-guard offense behind Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell. The trio has combined to average 70.5 points and 14.1 assists per game entering the playoffs. Denver’s backcourt must be aggressive and assignment sound to limit their production. Campazzo will be essential in causing havoc that disrupts the Blazers’ rhythm.

4. Postseason history

Much has changed since the 2019 NBA playoffs when the Trail Blazers took down the Nuggets in seven games for a first-round series victory. But you can bet there is still some bad blood between the budding Western Conference rivals. There are seven players combined from both teams who were active during that intense ’19 series. Nuggets: Will Barton (pending injury return), Paul Millsap, Monte Morris and Jokic. Blazers: Enes Kanter, Lillard and McCollum.

5. Fan impact

Just in time for the postseason, the attendance limit at Ball Arena has been raised from 4,050 to 7,750 starting with Game 1 on Saturday night. The Trail Blazers arena (Moda Center) is open to 2,000 fans. Neither crowd will elicit the normal playoff roar of maximum capacity. But establishing some level of home-court advantage might become important, especially if the series reaches Game 7. A raucous Ball Arena would only help the Nuggets.

— Kyle Fredrickson, The Denver Post

Series predictions

Mike Singer, Nuggets beat writer: The thing that’s scary about the Nuggets – other than their MVP, of course – is that all expectations were tossed the moment Jamal Murray went down. The only ones who didn’t flinch when talking about a deep playoff run were the ones in Denver’s locker room. Everyone saw what the Nuggets were capable of when they played with nothing to lose in last year’s playoffs. You can’t help but wonder if that same attitude is brewing again. Nuggets in seven.

Kyle Fredrickson, sports reporter: Analyze the matchups all you want, but the Nuggets will go only as far as Nikola Jokic carries them in the playoffs. If the sure-fire MVP has another gear, now is the time to shift up, because Jokic has all the tools to flirt with triple-doubles every night out against Portland. It must happen for Denver to advance. Nuggets in six.

Sean Keeler, columnist: The Blazers, Utah Lite, were always going to be an onerous draw when you’re minus the services of Murray and Harris. Campazzo ain’t Jamal, Austin Rivers ain’t Gary, and Dame is still Dame. But Michael Malone gets enough from MPJ early and Jokic late to survive and advance. Barely. Nuggets in seven.

Mark Kiszla, columnist: After the season-ending injury to Murray, the Nuggets stubbornly refused to fade away. That alone should make Jokic the landslide winner in MVP voting. But a seven-game series cruelly exposes the holes in a team, and Murray’s absence is a big one. I’m afraid the Portland backcourt of Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum could average 60 points per game. Blazers in six.

Matt Schubert, deputy sports editor: Oddsmakers favor the Blazers to advance. As do a fair amount of national pundits. There’s one thing they are overlooking: the ascendance of Michael Porter Jr. If we’ve learned one thing over the past month, it’s that the Nuggets’ young star is ready for his moment. Robert Covington aside, the Blazers defense has few answers for MPJ. Look for him to feast. Nuggets in seven.

Source: Read Full Article