Heading into the NBA playoffs, this series was marked as one that could be one of the more exciting ones to watch. Two dynamic offenses that have had decent playoff success over the past few seasons, although both have also failed to advance past the Western Conference Finals. One of the wildcards in how the rest of Denver’s season would look was the absence of Jamal Murray, one of the key catalysts for the team’s deep playoff run last year.
This Nugget’s squad looks a lot different from the one that lost to the Lakers in last year’s NBA playoffs, and in fact, looks a lot different from the team that suited up during the regular season. The one constant has been MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, who has been putting up video game-like numbers so far against Portland.
Jokic has scored 34, 38, and 36 points in the first three games, and has shown a killer instinct around the rim that has been a criticism of his play in the early years of his career. Perhaps more surprising is that Jokic, an excellent passer, has only recorded 1, 5, and 5 assists when he is coming off a regular season where he averaged 8.3 assists per game.
Jokic’s supporting cast is even more confusing to see, with Argentinian Facundo Campazzo lining up as the starting point guard in Murray’s absence and breakout star Michael Porter Jr. as the sharpshooter from beyond the arch. Denver picked up Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and signed Austin Rivers midseason, two transactions that have added irreplaceable depth. Keep in mind that the Nuggets are still without swingman Will Barton who is nursing a hamstring strain.
Portland needs to figure out a way to neutralize Jokic, who thus far has had his way with former Denver teammate Jusuf Nurkic. The Bosnian Beast has fouled out in both of the past two games, while only recording 16, 7, and 13 points so far. Sure, the Blazers have Lillard and McCollum, but Nurkic and backup Enes Kanter need to establish a presence down low and put some pressure on Jokic defensively.
Game 3 saw Denver hit 20 three-pointers, including four straight from Austin Rivers in the fourth quarter. Portland, on the other hand, struggled from deep, going 14 of 45, as they fell behind early and were never able to catch up. If Portland wants to even up this series, they will have to be more efficient with their shots, but more importantly, they will need to find a way of slowing Jokic down.
On paper, Portland has the better roster but just as Damian Lillard has taken over a series in the past, Jokic is doing the same for the Nuggets. Nurkic will need to stay out of foul trouble, and oftentimes the best defense is a strong offense. The Blazers need to pound the ball down low against Jokic to tire him out and put some foul pressure on him as well.
Once their presence has been established down low, it should open up more space for Lillard and McCollum to have cleaner looks on their shots.