The Portland Trail Blazers officially advanced to the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs yesterday with Damian Lillard’s astounding series-winning three. The celebrations probably lasted through the night, but now, the Blazers’ attention will turn towards the next round, where they will face either the Denver Nuggets or the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets, the 2 seed, own a 3-2 advantage over the Spurs, who looked like they controlled the series over the first 1.5 games, but have seemed a far inferior team the past two. Here are a few takeaways from the series that will be of relevance to the Blazers next round.
Nikola Jokic is a Superstar: This series is the first playoff appearance for most of Denver’s young core, including Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ franchise player. While Jokic is clearly great, there are always questions about player’s games translating to the playoffs until they are proven postseason performers. Well, Jokic has answered the call so far, averaging 19.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 9.0 assists per game (36 minutes) with only 2.0 turnovers. Greg Popovich has sent doubles and help at Jokic in the post, and he’s responded by calmly picking apart the Spurs’ defense with his brilliant passing. When the Spurs have left him open from deep, he’s taken his share of shots (4.0 threes per game) and hit them at a 40% rate. Defending Jokic, one of the most unique offensive players in NBA history, is a challenge, and Pop, perhaps the best coach in NBA history, has not figured out a workable solution so far. The Blazers will need to devise some strategy, and soon, because Jokic looks better than ever.
Derrick White Might be the Spurs’ Most Important Player: When the Spurs were cruising early in the series,Derrick White looked like the best guard on the court, over DeMar DeRozan, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris. He had a breakout sophomore campaign after an injury-stricken rookie season, and has made yet another mini-leap in the playoffs. Already an All-Defense level force, he’s absolutely swallowed up Murray for much of the series, sticking with him on off-ball screens as well as picks when Murray is the ball-handler, and is an expert shot-contester with his size and length. But it’s on the other side of the ball where he’s shocked watchers, pouring in nearly 18 points per game on a ridiculous 60.7% shooting from the field (he was at 9.9 and 47.9% respectively in the regular season). Some of that might be unsustainable, and Harris has done much better on him the last two games, but White is for real. Most importantly, for the Blazers consideration, is that he could make life very tough for Damian Lillard. It’s clear that Dame is at a level right now where he can play well against any defense, but White is a much better option on him than anyone OKC had. If White can do decently against Dame, other Blazers would need to step up to support their captain.
The Nuggets have their starting lineup figured out: Part of the Nuggets’ struggles their first two games seem to be have been the results of a misshapen starting lineup. With Will Barton, the Nuggets’ starters couldn’t get untracked offensively, and were getting worked defensively. Substituting either Torrey Craig or Malik Beasley has proven to be far more effective: Craig is a better defender than Barton and is a lower usage offensive player, while Beasley is a much stronger shooter and helps space the floor for Jokic. Barton, in turn, brings much-needed ballhandling and shot creation to the Nuggets’ second unit, and has played much better off the bench. Craig would be the probable starter against the Blazers to defend CJ McCollum or Damian Lillard and has even hit a lot of his threes recently. The Nuggets look much better with their reconfigured lineups, and resemble the team that was the #1 seed in the West for much of the season.
Miscellaneous: DeMar DeRozan’s raw numbers so far in the postseason look excellent, but just like in Toronto, the Spurs have been much, much better (+20 Net Rating swing) with him off the court vs. on… Each team boasts several ex-Blazers, with the Nuggets having Barton and Mason Plumlee, while the Spurs roster LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, and Dante Cunningham… Both the Spurs and Nuggets have trimmed their rotations in the postseason, going only nine players deep, while Terry Stotts used a 10-man rotation in the first round.
I think the Nuggets are likely to win the series. They have homecourt, they’ve completely outplayed the Spurs over the past two games, and were the far better team in the regular season. If the Nuggets advance, the Blazers will have their hands full with defending Jokic, but should be able to score with relative ease on the other end. The Spurs, on the other hand, could bring more defensive options to the table with White and Jakob Poeltl, but don’t really have the firepower to keep up with the Blazers’ star guards. The Blazers should probably hope for the Spurs to pull off the upset, but prepare more for the Nuggets.