The Portland Trail Blazers will face the Denver Nuggets in Round 2 of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Nikola Jokic and company downed the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of their first-round series tonight, earning the right to face Portland on Monday night at 7:30, Pacific in Denver.
Here’s a look at the strengths and weaknesses each team displayed during the season, explaining how they got to 50+ wins. Green on charts indicates a top-ten ranking in the league in that category, red indicates a bottom-ten ranking.
Denver Record: 54-28, 34-7 at home, 20-21 on the road, 2nd in the Western Conference
Portland Record: 53-29, 32-9 at home, 21-20 on the road, 3rd in the Western Conference
Head-to-Head: Denver won 3-1
Blazers Offense/Nuggets Defense
As always, Portland’s offense looks good, with the only real deficits coming in areas they don’t particularly care to emphasize. They’re efficient and productive.
The bad news is, Denver’s green areas on defense match up exactly with Portland’s strengths: three-point percentage, field goal attempts, and points, with an extra bonus of being strong at limiting three-point attempts. If you were to design a defense to match up with the Blazers, you could do way worse than Denver’s.
That said, the Blazers did manage to run against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1 and their guards look irrepressible. The Nuggets have good, all-around guards but the Blazers should be able to trump them in the backcourt.
The scariest part of the equation for the Blazers is Denver’s second-in-the-league three-point percentage defense. They are mobile and rangy; the Blazers don’t do well without the three. Portland will have to move the ball and depend on their ancillary players to hit open shots. That worked sometimes against the Thunder. Other times, not so much.
Nuggets Offense/Blazers Defense
The overall story looks better here. The Nuggets don’t display the offensive fireworks that the Blazers do. In most areas, this looks like a decent offense matched up against a decent defense. The Blazers may even get off the hook a little, as the Nuggets don’t draw many foul shots. Their star player, Nikola Jokic, only averaged 4.4 free throws per game this season. Foul trouble is a constant worry for Portland’s depleted lineup. Denver might let them breathe easier.
The huge issue on the board is Denver’s propensity to score in the paint. They’re top five in the league in the middle. The Blazers look like they do a good job defending there, but most of their numbers were accumulated with Jusuf Nurkic. It’s not just Jokic either. Denver’s wings get inside, Paul Millsap is always a threat, and even Mason Plumlee could cause the Blazers problems. The Thunder failed to exploit Portland’s weakness in the paint in Round 1. The Blazers won’t get away with it again.
Denver doesn’t always produce scoring off the bench, but they can. They’ll mix and match players to find a mismatch. They’ll pass the ball too, particularly Jokic. The possession is seldom static and never dead until the ball goes up. Watching the ball is never enough against this team.
Fortunately for Portland, few of Denver’s regular rotation players are dead-eye three-point shooters. If the Blazers do have to dig inside to help on defense, they’ll hope the average-or-worse performance from the arc continues for the Nuggets.
Once again the Blazers will be facing one of the titans of the league on the glass. Portland’s momentum against Oklahoma City nearly always coincided with sharp board work. This will likely be true against the Nuggets as well, but Denver is an even greater threat. The sentence above about “the possession isn’t over until the shot goes up” needs the coda: and you secure the rebound. One of the quickest ways for the Blazers to lose this series would be to waste good defense by giving up a constant stream of offensive rebounds.
Denver is more than capable of moving Portland’s bigs out of position at the defensive end of the floor and out-muscling the Blazers for rebounds when Portland is on offense. The Blazers have been good against (nearly) all comers this year, but they’ll be tested sorely in this series.
Portland’s backcourt versus Denver’s interior scoring will provide the big arm-wrestling match, with rebounding from both sides underpinning the table on which their elbows sit.
The Blazers have a few more holes than Denver does, but Portland is also capable of explosive offense than Denver doesn’t always match. Overall, this is a matchup of strength versus strength, leaving the door wide open for stars (Jokic, Damian Lillard) and side factors (fatigue, experience, bench performance) to influence the outcome.
Next Up: What the head-to-head matchups between Portland and Denver looked like this year and how individual players factor in.