The matchup between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers should be an interesting Western Conference semifinal series.
The Trail Blazers easily took care of the Thunder in five games in their first-round series, while the Nuggets managed to advance by topping the Spurs in seven games.
The Nuggets finished with a 3-1 record against Portland in the regular season and have won six of the last seven times the teams have met.
“I think we’re well-prepared,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said, via the Denver Post. “We’ve been prepared for them all year. I think we’ve got a pretty good scout on them.”
Here are three things that could decide the series between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers.
Trail Blazers assignment on Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic has had a breakout season for the Nuggets.
The 7-foot center averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals to help lead Denver to its first playoff appearance since 2012-13. He made his first All-Star team and is in the MVP conversation, as well.
Jokic continued his stellar play in his first NBA postseason series as he averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists over the seven games.
Portland does not have a true center who can matchup with Jokic since it lost Jusuf Nurkic to a gruesome leg injury in late March. The Trail Blazers could use Enes Kanter on the Nuggets’ star, however, he struggles defensively and is dealing with a shoulder injury. Backup Zach Collins may also spend time guarding Jokic, but Collins is inexperienced and plays only about 14 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Portland will need to figure out a way to slow down Jokic if it wants to advance to the conference championship.
Battle of the backcourts
The Trail Blazers’ strength is their guards.
Damian Lillard consistently performs at an All-Star level and almost single-handedly led Portland past the Thunder in Round 1.
“He’s special,” Portland coach Terry Stotts, via The Oregonian. “Dame’s had a special year. He is in the category of all those guys that he probably doesn’t get as much acknowledgement for, but he has been doing it. People in Portland know he’s been doing it, he carried our team this year, so that’s who he is and I’m thankful for it.”
Lillard is complemented by CJ McCollum, who is a strong secondary scoring option and playmaker.
Meanwhile, Denver’s backcourt features young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. The pair will look to limit Lillard and McCollum defensively while offsetting their production with offense of their own on the other end.
Blazers bench production
The Trail Blazers finished the regular season 18th in the NBA in bench scoring. And that production has fallen off in the playoffs.
Portland’s backups are averaging just 18.8 points per game in the postseason, and Stotts has been forced to rely heavily on his starters. While that was not an issue against the Thunder, it could present a problem against the Nuggets, who have a stronger second unit.
The Trail Blazers will need to receive more from their bench in this series.