9:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Nuggets -3.5, Over/Under: 218
Though they took two very different paths to get to this point, Northwest Division Rivals meet once again, as the Two Seed, Denver Nuggets, play host to the Three Seed, Portland Trail Blazers, in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. Oh what a difference a year can make, for back in the Spring of 2018, the Trail Blazers (53-29, 3rd in Western Conference) entered the Playoffs with a wealth of momentum as the Third Seed out West, only to be embarrassed in a debilitating four-game sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans. Now, just over a year later Portland returns to the Postseason as Third in the West, and successfully turned the tables on their opponent, dumping division rival Oklahoma City in nearly reverse fashion, conducting a Gentleman’s Sweep over the course of five games. Indeed, this outcome was certainly surprising given the circumstances, for after all, despite being the higher-seeded combatant, the Blazers were billed as Underdogs to a team that had swept them in their four meetings during the Regular Season. Compounding matters was the absence of Jusuf Nurkic (15.6 PTS, 50.8% FG, 10.4 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 23.4 PER), their Starting Center who unfortunately broke his leg in late February, leaving a massive 7′-0″, 275-lb void in the Paint. However, Terry Stotts’s charges proved their resilience, going 16-6 down the stretch without the big Bosnian International, and thumping the Thunder in the First Round of these Playoffs. Granted, while Oklahoma City certainly suffered from their fair share of problems after the All-Star Break, you would’ve been hard-pressed to realize that they had indeed swept Portland during the Regular Season, for Damian Lillard (25.8 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 23.7 PER) & Co took them to task from Game One all the way to Game Five, when the Four-Time All-Star Point Guard knocked down a clutch, walk-off 37-Footer to end the affair altogether. There were many questions in regards to Lillard being a true Franchise Player after last season’s debacle, but the outspoken floor general has done nothing but dispel those notions thus far, destroying his First Round Opponent in style, averaging 33.0 Points on 46.1% shooting, including staggering 48.1% from beyond the arc, along with 4.4 Rebounds, 6.0 Assists, and 2.4 Steals. Seriously, we wouldn’t doubt that the Thunder will be having nightmares of this guy raining Threes down on their collective heads for years to come, for the Three-Time All-NBA Selection drilled 26-of-52 attempts from downtown, which was exactly half of the amount of Three-Pointers made by OKC. As a team, the Trail Blazers shot a blistering 40.5% from long-range, a stark contrast to that of their counterpart (33.1%), outscoring them by an average of 7.2 Points per Game in that regard. With that said, Stotts had to have been proud of his troops for the fact that even without Nurkic, they still put forth a balanced effort, with the Supporting Cast stepping up in a major way. C.J. McCollum (21.0 PTS, 45.9% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.0 PER) took part in the three-point extravaganza, while both Maurice Harkless (7.7 PTS, 48.7% FG, 27.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.9 BLK, 13.2 PER) and Al-Farouq Aminu (9.4 PTS, 43.3% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 7.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.4 BLK, 13.2 PER) had their moments, though the x-factor was none other than Enes Kanter (13.1 PTS, 57.7% FG, 8.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.5 PER), who was acquired after clearing waivers shortly before the All-Star Break. The Turkish International (and not to mention former member of the Thunder) did a remarkable job of filling Nurkic’s considerable shoes, averaging 13.2 Points on 57.4% shooting, along with 10.2 Rebounds and 2.0 Assists, allowing the Blazers to counter their opponent’s relentless effort on the glass, outrebounding the Thunder by a margin of 2.2 Boards per Game.
In moving on to the Western Semifinals for the first time since 2016, the Trail Blazers have run into yet another familiar foe, yet another Northwestern Division Rival, this time in the form of the Denver Nuggets. Similar to their Series with Oklahoma City, Portland did not fair well against their opponent, dropping all but one of their four meetings during the Regular Season, and though it may have been surprising to some, that trend continued in Game One of this Series. Unable to take advantage of their opponent’s fatigue after a grueling seven-game set, the visitors fell short in a tightly-contested 113-121 defeat, despite lighting it up on 51.9% shooting from the field, including 11-of-29 from downtown (37.9%). The problem though, was they simply couldn’t stop shooting themselves in the proverbial foot, committing nearly as many Turnovers (18) as Assists (20). Now, Portland has never been a high-assist team under Stotts, and they’ll never show the seamless fluidity of a team such as the Warriors on the offensive end of the court, for that just isn’t their style, but they simply aren’t constructed to succeed when they cough up the rock nearly twenty times in a game. Lillard, despite another Herculean effort (39 PTS, 12-of-21 FG) had as many Turnovers as Assists (6), while both the aforementioned Aminu and Harkless had three apiece in comparison to a miniscule combined Nine Points. This would be the difference in the contest, folks, for while the visiting side also managed to force a dozen Turnovers, only the Nuggets were able to make something out of them, scoring Twenty-Three Points off their opponent’s miscues opposed to just Six for the Blazers. There is no doubt that Stotts will be ruing his team’s sloppy play, for they were still very much in the game late, with plenty of opportunities to turn things around. After all, this is becoming a bit of a habit for these team, for while the matchup has been one-sided thus far, the four affairs during the Regular Season were decided by a combined SIX Points. If Portland can cut down on these mistakes, then there is no reason to believe that they can’t turn the tables on Denver in the same vein as they did to Oklahoma City in the previous Round of these Playoffs.
Meanwhile, after a stellar Regular Season in which they spent much of the term pacing the West, the Nuggets (54-28, 2nd in Western Conference) can at long last announce their arrival. Despite securing the Second Seed, many in the Basketball World were rather lukewarm on this young team, who in struggling a bit down the stretch, planted the seeds of doubt that their inexperience could prove fatal if they were to meet turbulence in the Playoffs. Well, turbulence would be one way of phrasing it, for while the rest of their higher-seeded brethren had little trouble escaping the First Round, Denver ran into the Spurs, who in many ways were perhaps the worst opponent for them to face this early in the tournament. While they weren’t nearly as formidable as past incarnations, is there any team in the league possessing more legitimate Postseason Experience than San Antonio? And for that matter, who better to milk that advantage than one Gregg Popovich? Unsurprisingly, over the duration of a grueling seven games, that’s precisely what happened, as Mike Malone’s charges were forced to deal with adjustment after adjustment in what was very much a baptism by fire for the young Nuggets. With the Pace of Play (91.4 Possession per 48 Minutes) at times slowed to a grinding halt, the Northwest Division Champions had to pull out all of the stops get ahead of their savvy counterpart, though in the latter stages of the Series, appeared to have finally figured things out. All teams go through these kind of growing pains in the Playoffs, and nobody was going to take this one seriously as a contender until the successfully navigated through such an affair, which Malone & Co. can now check off their proverbial bucket list. All-Star Center Nikola Jokic (20.1 PTS, 51.1% FG, 30.7% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 7.3 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.7 BLK, 26.3 PER) was a man possessed throughout the seven games, averaging 23.1 Points on 48.8% shooting from the field, including 33.3% from beyond the arc, along with 12.1 Rebounds, 9.1 Assists, and 1.3 Steals, racking up Triple-Doubles in each of the bookend entries of the Series, recording Twenty-One Points, Fifteen Rebounds, and Ten Assists in Game Seven’s 90-86 triumph. Though they were bullied on the glass (Minus-1.1 REB), and couldn’t keep San Antonio off the Charity Stripe (Minus-16 FT), the Nuggets ultimately advanced due to their superior production from long-range, where they knocked down 68-of-189 attempts (36.0%) during the Series, nailing Twenty-One more Threes than the Spurs, or in other words, outscoring them by an average of 9.0 Points per Game in that regard. Five different players connected on at least Ten Three-Point Field Goals, with sharpshooting Guards, Jamal Murray (18.2 PTS, 43.7% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.4 BLK, 16.0 PER) and Gary Harris (12.9 PTS, 42.4% FG, 33.9% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 12.2 PER), along with the aforementioned Jokic, combining for Thirty-Six Threes. Murray certainly had his ups and downs during the Series, but came up big when it mattered most in Game Seven, scoring a game-high Twenty-Three Points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field (47.4%), along with Five Rebounds and Four Assists, knocking down all but One of his Six Free-Throws. That win marked Denver’s first Series Victory in over a decade, in which they advanced all the way to the 2009 Western Conference Finals. Furthermore, Saturday Night’s victory was their first in a Game Seven in Forty-One Years. Indeed, it’s a great time to be a Nuggets Fan…
After spending the previous seven games throwing haymakers with the Spurs, you would forgive the Nuggets if they were a bit lethargic in Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals, though that was not the case for Malone’s young charges used that valuable experience to take a 1-0 lead over the Trail Blazers courtesy of Monday Night’s 121-113 victory. This was very much an offensive showing for both teams, with the hosts seemingly relishing in the fact that this Series figures to be much more fluid than the proverbial wrestling matchup that served as it’s predecessor. As we stated earlier, Portland shot well from the field, though so did Denver, who knocked down 50.6% of their attempts from the field, including 12-of-29 from beyond the arc (41.4%), while also planting a flag at the Charity Stripe, where they calmly sank 27-of-31 Free-Throws (87.1%). In a narrow affair such as this, these were keen advantages for the home side, outscoring the visitors by a combined Ten Points in those areas, which in addition to that aforementioned advantage in Points off Turnovers (23-6), swung the pendulum in favor of the Northwestern Champions. Once again, Jokic was cooking throughout the contest, totaling Thirty-Seven Points on an efficient 11-of-18 shooting (61.1%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), and 12-of-12 from the Free-Throw Line (100.0%), along with Nine Rebounds, Six Assists, Three Steals, and Two Blocks. With the Blazers rallying back and closing the deficit to Five Points, the towering Serbian barreled to rim and was subject to a Flagrant Foul courtesy of McCollum, which after the a pair of Free-Throws swung the momentum back in favor of the Nuggets. Portland had one last crack at it in the end, but the aforementioned Harris came up to block Lillard’s Three in the closing minute of action. It was a strong performance for many at the Pepsi Center, with Murray continuing his Postseason growth, scoring Twenty-Three Points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), including 3-of-6 from distance (50.0%), alongside Eight Assists and a pair of Steals, while veteran Forward, Paul Millsap (12.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 17.9 PER), adding Nineteen Points, Six Rebounds, Three Assists, and a Block. After losing their Playoff Opener at home, Denver has won four consecutive outings at Pepsi Center, which is hardly surprising when you consider that they compiled the best home record in the league at 37-4 (.902).