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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Denver Nuggets
Denver Nuggets Aaron Gordon (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports) /

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets: X-factors

Nuggets: Aaron Gordon

Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic

The battle between Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard is the real headline and the selling point for watching this series, but I think the outcome of this series will be determined by the play of a few frontcourt players.

Denver Nuggets traded for Aaron Gordon because of his versatility, his surprising ability to hit open 3’s and elite athleticism. But after a fast start from the trade deadline, Aaron Gordon’s play has dropped off – he’s averaging 9.8 points per game and shooting 22 percent from 3 in his last eight games. Gordon seems to still be adjusting to his role on the team and struggling to find his spots to be more aggressive.

While the Nuggets obviously need Gordon to chip in more on the offensive end, Gordon’s biggest impact in the series might on the defensive side of the ball. One of the appealing things about Aaron Gordon is his ability to guard multiple positions and extend his defensive length out towards the perimeter. Portland has to the best wing scorers in the NBA and Gordon will likely have to take some of the defensive responsibility on those guys. If he can slow down or disrupt the scoring of either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, Denver could win this series comfortably.

The key to the Blazers it’s going to be the play of center Jusuf Nurkic.  The Bosnian has been battling injuries for the last couple of years but has worked his way back during the latter part of this season – averaging 14 points in 25 minutes per night during the month of May. Nurkic can go a lot of different things for Portland, but his biggest value is his rim protection. Nurkic executes the drop-big defensive scheme well for Terry Stotts and has shown the ability to guard guys in the post. Portland needs him to play his best as he goes up against Nikola Jokic.

I am by no means saying Nurkic is going to “shutdown” Jokic. But Nurkic is a massive defensive upgrade over the alternative: Enes Kanter. Kanter has given the Trail Blazers a huge lift with his offensive rebounding and inside scoring, he’s among the worst pick-and-roll defenders in the history of the league and gives little to no resistance against scoring big men. If Portland is forced to play Kanter significant minutes against Nikola Jokic, it’ll be a disaster.

On the other hand, If Portland can get 30 minutes a night from Nurkic to guard the rim, it’ll force Jokic to really work for his scoring and give Portland a fighting chance.