10:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Trail Blazers -4, Over/Under: 227
With their series squared away at one game apiece, the (Six Seed) Portland Trail Blazers and (Three Seed) Denver Nuggets take this encounter to the Pacific Northwest for Game Three from Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. If history has taught us anything about these two division rivals, we should expect their battle to go the duration; when they met back in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, it was the former who managed to edge the latter over the duration of a tightly-contested seven games. Two years later and the Nuggets (47-25, 3rd in Western Conference) have been presented with an opportunity to show how much they’ve grown, which in hindsight is rather considerably. Coming off a surprise trip to the Western Conference Finals, much was expected out of Denver coming into 2020-2021, particularly when you consider their young nucleus of talent and the expected growth following such significant postseason experience. Though they got off to a bit of a middling start to the campaign (just 18-15 heading into the month of March), they really kicked things into high gear from that point on, amassing a stellar 29-10 record over the final two and a half months in which they averaged 114.7 points on 48.7% shooting from the field, including 36.7% from beyond the arc, along with dishing out a healthy 27.2 assists in comparison to committing just 12.8 turnovers. During that period there were some huge gains and losses, with the addition of (2014 No. 4 Overall Pick) Aaron Gordon (10.2 PTS, 50.0% FG, 26.6% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 14.1 PER) in a trade with the Orlando Magic shortly before the Trade Deadline looking like the missing piece within a rotation yearning for some versatility and athleticism at Forward. Gordon, who in many circles around the league was branded a bust during his tenure in Central Florida, immediately jumpstarted Denver’s surge over the second half of the season, with his new side winning seventeen of their first twenty-one outings after his arrival. While the 25-year old was flourishing within a different culture, the Nuggets were unfortunately dealt a MAJOR blow with the season-ending loss of (emerging sharpshooter) Jamal Murray (21.2 PTS, 47.7% FG, 40.8% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 18.3 PER) to a torn ACL in mid-April. Murray had been averaging career-highs in a slew of categories, including points (21.2), field goal percentage (47.7%), three-point percentage (40.8%), two-point percentage (52.3%), and steals (1.3), and needless to say, this is a loss that will not only effect his team during this Playoff run but also next season as he works through his rehab. Thankfully, (Head Coach) Mike Malone has had the services of MVP frontrunner, Nikola Jokic (26.4 PTS, 56.6% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 8.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK, 31.3 PER), to lean on, with the towering Serbian Center enjoying the greatest form of his young career. Arguably the most unique talent in the National Basketball Association, the 25-year old is literally the only player in the league today to lead his side in scoring (26.4), field goal percentage (56.6%), rebounds (10.8), assists (8.3), steals (1.3), and PER (31.3). The fact that he was able to not only keep Denver afloat following Murray’s injury, but propel them to a 13-5 record without him and clinching the Third Seed in the process should be the figurative icing on the cake for his MVP candidacy. However, now they’ll need him to do what he couldn’t do two years ago: carry them to a series victory over the Blazers. Denver was 2-1 against Portland in the Regular Season, with their only defeat coming in the Finale at Moda Center, in which Malone clearly wasn’t concerned with working his starters to hard, with all but one of the first five logging over twenty minutes of action. In those matchups, Jokic was much more of a scorer than a playmaker, averaging 29.0 points on 52.2% shooting from the field, forty-one points in a five-point win back in late February. This trend has continued into the postseason, with the big fella posting thirty-four points on 14-of-27 shooting (51.9%) in Game One, before following that performance with thirty-eight points on an even more efficient 15-of-20 shooting (75.0%). The issue though, at least in Saturday Night’s 123-109 defeat, was the supporting cast was largely absent; only (promising young Forward) Michael Porter Jr. (19.0 PTS, 54.2% FG, 44.5% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.9 BLK, 20.6 PER) and the aforementioned Gordon stepped up, with the former totaling twenty-five points on 12-of-21 shooting (57.1%) and the latter adding sixteen points and eight rebounds. Unfortunately, Denver received just thirty-four points from the other six players in the rotation, and was far from aggressive in terms of getting to the charity stripe (4-of-8 FT) where they were outscored by fourteen points, while failing to pressure the Blazers on the perimeter, yielding 19-of-40 from three (47.5%), putting them at a disadvantage of twenty-four points in that regard. Game Two was a different story altogether though, with the hosts flipping the script en route to a comfortable 128-109 victory. Apart from Jokic, the supporting cast was essential with five other players scoring in double-figures, including a bench unit that accounted for thirty-eight points. As a team, Malone’s troops shot a scorching 53.5% from the field, and managed to shorten the distance in three-point production (Minus-12), while planting a proverbial flag at the free-throw line where they calmly knocked down 24-of-30 attempts (80.0%). With that said, the biggest factor proved to be turnovers, with Denver forcing Portland into twenty-one miscues that they managed to turn into thirteen more field goal attempts and twenty-two points. These turnovers also allowed them to jumpstart their fast break, outscoring the visitors 16-4 in transition, which played a major role in their sizable advantage in paint points (54-32). With the series shifting to the Pacific Northwest, it will be imperative for this team that the supporting cast finds away to maintain this level of play, particularly when consider that they’re missing plenty of firepower apart from Murray; both Will Barton (12.7 PTS, 42.6% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 11.8 PER) and P.J. Dozier (7.7 PTS, 41.7% FG, 31.5% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 10.4 PER) have yet to suit up in this series, with the former having been out of action since late April with a strained hamstring and the latter out with an adductor injury that has cost him each of the last nine games including the Playoffs, leaving the Backcourt very depleted.
Meanwhile, their opponent will get no sympathy from the Blazers (42-30, 6th in Western Conference), who have once again dealt with quite a bit of adversity this season, and just as they have in the past have managed to rally down the stretch and make an impact in the Playoffs. Last year, Portland overcame a rash of injuries and a midseason swoon, only to emerge healthy following the four-month hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and force their way into a Play-In scenario in the Bubble, which they took advantage of in order to reach the postseason for a seventh consecutive season. Granted, they flamed out rather quickly against the eventual champion, Los Angeles Lakers, but their signature resilience was nonetheless on display once again. This season, (Head Coach) Terry Stotts saw his side lose two major pieces of his Starting Five, with (veteran sharpshooter) C.J. McCollum (23.1 PTS, 45.8% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 4.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 20.8 PER) suffering a foot injury back in mid-January that would keep out for twenty-five consecutive games, and (towering Center) Jusuf Nurkic (11.5 PTS, 51.4% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 9.0 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.1 BLK, 20.5 PER) miss thirty-two straight contests with a broken bone in his hand. With that said, the Blazers managed to keep their collective heads above water during this period, going 19-13 without the pair, before finally welcoming them back in late March, in which they had already strengthened their rotation with the addition of (emerging Guard) Norman Powell (17.0 PTS, 44.3% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 14.2 PER), who was acquired in a deal with the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Gary Trent Jr. (General Manager) Neil Olshey did a solid job in the offseason of adding veteran pieces in the event of another injury spell from the starters, with the likes of (3 & D specialist) Robert Covington (8.5 PTS, 40.1% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 6.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 1.2 BLK, 11.2 PER) and (Turkish Center) Enes Kanter (11.2 PTS, 60.4% FG, 11.0 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 0.7 BLK, 22.4 PER) joining the supporting cast in Free Agency, with the latter returning after a brief spell with the Boston Celtics. All in all, this latest version of the Trail Blazers should be better suited for the Playoffs than there immediate predecessors were, and after returning to full strength and winning all but two of their final twelve games heading into the postseason, they managed to avoid the Play-In Tournament and set up a matchup against a familiar foe who they not only match up well with, but are absolutely confident against. Then again, how can any team with (All-NBA Guard) Damian Lillard (28.8 PTS, 45.1% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 7.5 AST, 0.9 STL, 25.6 PER) NOT be confident? Simply put, it’s always Dame Time when the six-time All-Star is on the hardwood, with the Blazers feeding off his swagger and resilience. The 30-year old was unsurprisingly at the forefront of their surge down the stretch, averaging 30.3 points on a ridiculous 54.5% shooting from the field, including a blistering 47.8% from beyond the arc, along with 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists, and a steal during the final dozen contests, including twenty-two in the 132-116 victory over the Nuggets in the Finale, which coincidentally booked this date with their Northwest Division foes. Stotts was happy to see his troops carry that momentum into Game One in which they stole homecourt advantage away on the strength of a convincing 123-109 romp, making it rain from the perimeter shooting a ridiculous 19-of-40 (47.5%). Lillard matched the aforementioned Jokic’s game-high of thirty-four points, netting a 5-of-12 from downtown, along with all nine of his attempts from the charity stripe. McCollum and Nurkic (who was HYPED to battle the team Jokic and the team that drafted him back in 2014) accounted twenty-one and sixteen points respectively, with the latter totaling a dozen rebounds and five assists. The Bench also performed well with (veteran Swingman) Carmelo Anthony (13.4 PTS, 42.1% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 14.6 PER) and (young Forward) Anfernee Simons (7.8 PTS, 41.9% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.3 PER) combining for thirty-two points on 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%), including a torrid 8-of-13 from three (61.5%). Unfortunately, Game Two would prove to be a different story altogether, for it apart from Lillard, who exploded for FORTY-TWO points, the rest of the team could only manage sixty-seven points, with the Floor General also accounting for all but seven of his side’s sixteen three-pointers. Furthermore, the members of the supporting cast who played so well over the weekend were nowhere to be found on Monday Night, with Nurkic, Anthony, and Simons combining for only thirteen points on 4-of-14 shooting (28.6%). This loss highlighted some of the flaws that we’ve come to be familiar with under Stotts’ watch in Portland, with the offense, which has long been deep-rooted in mid-to-long range jumpers, struggled to move the basketball, dishing out a scant fifteen assists in comparison to committing an unacceptable TWENTY-ONE turnovers, twelve of which were charged to Lillard, McCollum, and Covington. They’ve also been a rather poor defensive side over the years, and they really struggled to slow down the Nuggets, trailing by as much as twenty-three points. We’ll see if they can take better care of the rock tonight, for if they continue to be sloppy in possession then they will relinquish home court advantage right back to Denver, which will be viewed as nothing short of a missed opportunity for a franchise that has missed MANY over the course of their history.