I really couldn’t have been more wrong about both teams in the first round.
For the second year in a row, the Trail Blazers burned me. They absolutely burned me. The year I was all in on them, they let me down (Last season against New Orleans). The year where I told myself to caution that hope and not make the same mistakes, they corrected what went wrong the year before. And they did it in the most cold-blooded, dominating fashion ever.
It was so cold-blooded that Oklahoma City somewhat proved me right and still lost. It wasn’t that Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder were that bad defensively, it was that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were that good offensively. It is a new age, but still, guarding someone from 30 feet out is not an alignment that is necessary 100 percent of the time. In this series, against Dame and CJ, it was. It was necessary 100 percent of the time. OKC never adjusted to that. How is that an adjustment you consistently make?
Denver let me down like Portland did last year, despite still winning the series. It’s kind of tough to consider it a win though; letting this Spurs team take you to seven games and letting them lose the series not based on anything you did right is pretty embarrassing. It didn’t seem like they wanted to win the series. It felt like no one wanted to win that series.
Doubting Portland at this point is terrifying. Lillard is in the middle of a nuclear-volcano hot streak right now. He can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league, and that’s even with the way Kevin Durant is playing. That’s how hot he is.
Denver has nothing to contain the duo of Dame and CJ. I mean, the Nuggets guards allowed Derrick White to score 36 points in a playoff game. This is a Derrick White, who, while yes has been fantastic for the Spurs this year, is a defensive-minded player whose offensive ceiling should be a backup facilitator.
Gary Harris was fantastic defensively against the Spurs, but he and Will Barton, who was unplayable because of his offense rather than his defense (-10.2 net rating in this series. Yikes!), were the only two Denver guards that made the defense better when they were on the court, per NBA.com. That essentially leaves Harris as the Lillard stopper. But then you still have McCollum to deal with.
With the way those two are playing right now, either could kill you. CJ could easily have the type of game Dame did in Game 6 against OKC. They’re interchangeable with their production.
The Nuggets are going to need a massive offensive output to have a chance in this series, and there’s a case that they could get it.
Again, doubting Portland is terrifying. But that wasn’t exactly a lockdown series from the Blazers on the defensive side of the ball either. While Al-Faruoq Aminu was good, Paul George heated up when needed. Problem was, Steven Adams couldn’t take advantage of an easy mismatch against Enes Kanter (Was he hurt?), and Russell Westbrook did the classic Russell Westbrook thing of saying “I got this” too many times, shooting OKC out of games while Portland poured it on.
The same reasons I picked OKC over Portland can be applied here. If you torture Dame and CJ on the defensive end, you have a chance. Russ and Schroder didn’t do that, and games where Paul George’s injury showed featured the bad Russ and Schroder performance rather than the good one.
The Nuggets have two ways to expose Dame and CJ. 1) Run everything through Jokic by making him throw crafty passes to cutters and slashers heading to the rim (San Antonio had no answers for the Malik Beasley cut-around Jokic toward the basket play) and 2) Jamal Murray, who may or may not decide to show up when you need him.
At least one of these options can be consistent. Just like Steven Adams should have been, Jokic and everything he brings can be unstoppable against Portland. When Denver fed him at the top of the post and gave him a couple power dribbles to gain position, the Spurs had no chance. Running him down the lane and giving him an entry pass? Also no chance. The underrated rim-running part of his game can dominate teams with unathletic rim protectors or no rim protectors (Like Portland).
Or, Denver can make Portland have to work defensively, and put Dame and CJ in DHO-like motions, forcing them to collide into the refrigerator that is Jokic which gives Denver an easy layup or a kick-out for an open three, depending on where a wing like Aminu’s help is on the inside.
Murray is hit-or-miss. If he’s having a good night or has a Game 2-like performance where he bails them out despite having a bad night, then it’s a huge added boost for Denver. A good Jokic and Murray game gets them a win.
For Denver to win this series, they need that every night and some luck, which would come in the form of McCollum and Lillard both having games where the shooting percentage’s regression hits them like a brick. With the guards playing the way they are though, there’s no way that happens. This feels too special to just fall apart. Portland has more firepower, and more importantly, they have more of it every night.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in 5