Blazers-Nuggets: X-factors, key matchups, and a prediction

NBA Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)
NBA Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports) /
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Nikola Jokic
NBA Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic (Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports) /

Taking a closer look at the first-round NBA playoff matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets. 

This first-round matchup in the NBA playoffs will be a battle of two MVP candidates truly at the peak of their form. Presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic will lead the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in a scintillating first-round matchup against Damian Lillard and the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. This will also be a rematch from the 2019 Western Conference semifinals, where the Blazers eked out a series victory in a tight seven games.

The Nuggets have had quite a rollercoaster season of momentum and come to the playoffs a little unsure of themselves. The Nuggets finished the season as the 7th best offensive team in the league – thanks to the amazing play of Nikola Jokic. The 7-foot Serbian averaged a career-high of 26.5 points per game, to go along with 10.8 rebounds per game, 8.3 assists per game, and shot 57. percent from the field. His offensive genius and playmaking were on full display from December all the way to May and is very deserving of earning his first MVP award.

Things were looking really good for the Nuggets in March. Denver traded Gary Harris to the Orlando Magic for forward Aaron Gordon which, at the time, had Denver perhaps the best team in the league. With Aaron Gordon in the lineup, the Nuggets had more athleticism and verticality to go with their offensive prowess.

Denver went 11-2 after that Aaron Gordon trade with an offensive rating of 119.2 during that stretch. They frankly looked unstoppable and many (including myself) thinking they were on the way to the Finals.

But the season changed for Denver on April 21st when (ironically playing the Portland) Jamal Murray suffered a devastating ACL injury and was out for the rest of the season. With Murray out, Denver no longer had a primary ballhandler, a dynamic pick-and-roll partner for Jokic, an elite scorer, and an above-average perimeter defender.

Since the injury, while guys like Monte Morris, Facundo Campazzo, and Austin Rivers have had good moments as replacements, this team just isn’t quite the same. Denver comes into the playoffs winners of 9 of 14 games, but their offense has really become very Jokic-centric, and the team is only shooting 34 percent from 3 during that time.

Portland Trail Blazers have also had quite the rollercoaster season. with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as your lead backcourt, the Blazers finish this season as the second-best offensive team in the league. So why are they a six seed? One word – Defense.

Portland finished the season 29th in the league in defense and had no real defensive resistance from the beginning of the season – teams were constantly posting their best offensive nights of the season against Portland. Injuries certainly played a part in this – they had no Zack Collins or Jusuf Nurkic for most of the season – but Portland failed in many aspects on the defensive side.

The Trail Blazers have also struggled against the better teams in the League, having an incredible 14 losses of 15 points or more against playoff teams. Their lack of defense and depth was certainly exposed by the better teams in the West.

However, things have been looking out for the Portland Trail Blazers as of late. Since they acquired Norman Powell at the trade deadline, Portland has steadily improved their defense from terrible to subpar, while so leaning into taking more 3-point attempts in their offense. It appears to be working – Portland comes into the playoffs winners of 10 of their last 12 games, with both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum arguably playing their best basketball this season.

The Nuggets won the season series 2-1, with the Trail Blazers winning the one game on the last day of the season or copious amounts of taking to avoid the Lakers took place. However, the two Denver wins were before the Jamal Murray injury and both of those games were relatively close. There’s just not a whole lot you can take from the season head-to-head matchups between these two teams.