As the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets prepare to clash in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, let’s take a look at head-to-head statistical matchups for their top rotation players. We know Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic excelled during the regular season and dominated Round 1 of the playoffs. How did they do against each other’s teams, and how did their supporting casts fare?
Let’s take a look.
The story does not start out promising for Portland. Denver was one of Damian Lillard’s worst matchups this season. Lillard played 3.3 more minutes per game against Denver than average, but he registered fewer shots attempts and his percentages from the floor and the arc were miserable. 37.1% overall and 28.6% from distance...that’s not the Damian Lillard we’re used to seeing. 21.3 points per game still reads as a #1 option, but it’s closer to talented scoring guard than transcendent superstar.
Lillard dialed up the megawattage considerably against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, averaging 33.0 points on 46.1% shooting, 48.1% from the arc. Maybe he’s just that good and it’ll carry over. If Denver’s defensive attention blunts him, though, the Blazers will have a hard time making it up. They’re already hurting at center. The mere idea of Lillard not being amazing—let alone not being himself against rangy, dedicated guards—is enough to cast this series in doubt.
Lillard’s ability to excel against Denver will be one of two major questions the Blazers will need to answer early.
CJ McCollum played to his season averages against Denver. The glaring exception comes in three-point shooting, a Denver defensive specialty. McCollum shot 37.5% from the arc during the regular season as a whole, only 26.3% against the Nuggets.
If the Blazers had Jusuf Nurkic on the court, with a possibility of battling Nikola Jokic to a near-draw, 41 points combined from the Lillard-McCollum backcourt might be enough to give hope. Odds are the Blazers will need more than that to make this a competitive series.
Here’s some good news for Portland: Al-Farouq Aminu excelled against the Nuggets. Whatever attention their defense devoted to the backcourt left him free to score. He took advantage with 3.3 extra field goal attempts, 1.3 extra three-pointers, and 6.4 points added to his scoring average. He also doubled his free throws and rebounded like an All-Star.
Enes Kanter also scored and rebounded big versus the Nuggets. He took far more shots and kept his field goal percentage high, earning an eye-popping 17 points per game. Meanwhile his offensive rebounding went through the roof and he even got in a couple assists. The Blazers will need all of those attributes, particularly the rebounding, if they’re to keep pace with Denver.
If you take a strict team approach, where quantity trumps quality, Portland’s key players have fared well enough against the Nuggets. The one player who fell short in the season series (Lillard) lies at the heart of any hopes to contend in the playoffs. That’s not accidental. Denver’s first aim in this series will be to chop off the head. They’ll be less concerned with how the body wriggles afterwards.
The glass half empty approach say the Blazers can’t win anything without Lillard going full bore. The glass half full approach: if Lillard does bust out again, his supporting cast has enough of a track record to make hopes for victory credible.
If Lillard’s chart was a nightmare for Portland, Jokic’s will send them ducking under the blanket. Denver’s center is already a bona fide star. Against the Blazers this season, he looked like an MVP. The numbers tell the tale: he scored 25.7 ppg (5.6 over his season average) while shooting 62% from the field and 38.5% from the arc. He’s capable of pulling Portland defenders outside, scoring around them inside, grabbing offensive rebounds, oh...and he averaged 8 assists per game against the Blazers.
While solving the Thunder, Portland helped Kanter defend the middle by sending wings to bother Steven Adams. Adams was not an outside threat, nor was he anywhere near the passer Jokic is. If Portland employs that strategy again, they’ll have to rotate quickly enough to counter Jokic’s dime-dropping ability. Stopping him directly is only half the story; the next guy to touch the ball after him makes the Nuggets deadly.
The Blazers may settle for keeping a body on Jokic inside while leaving other defenders at home to take away his assist lanes. That would make Jokic into a scorer first, hopefully a perimeter one as much as possible. If he scores 30 but his assists and offensive rebounds are limited, plus the Nuggets don’t shoot an obnoxious percentage from the field, Portland’s team offense may outweigh them. If Jokic plays as well as he did during the regular season and remains a threat to shoot, score, rebound, and pass, the Blazers will have a tough time winning this series.
Watch for the Nuggets to pull Portland into all kinds of screens and motion while defending Jokic. The Thunder were nearly criminally negligent in not doing so. Denver won’t make that mistake.
While Denver’s center excelled against Portland, their point guard did not. Jamal Murray’s scoring rose slightly against the Blazers compared to his season average, but his efficiency went down. He shot below 40% from the field. His three-point percentage went from an acceptable 36.7% to a wince-inducing 30.8%. Success at the foul line was his strongest recommendation; he more than doubled his free-throw attempts during the season series.
The Nuggets may feel the same way about the battle between Murray and Lillard that the Blazers do about Kanter and Jokic. Murray doesn’t have to match Lillard, nor does he need to be efficient. If he can manufacture 19 points while keeping Lillard under 25, Denver has gotten what they needed out of the matchup.
Gary Harris’ shot attempts and scoring efficiency have gone way down this year. He’s looked good against the Blazers mostly because he’s had more opportunities to score.
Harris’ already-low three-point percentage dropped even further against Portland, but like backcourt mate Murray, he got to the foul line more often. None of Harris’ individual numbers will scare the Blazers, but his aggregate production was enough to blunt the edge of Portland’s supposed backcourt advantage.
Even if he’s not priority one, the Blazers can’t sleep on Harris. He scored 20+ points twice in Denver’s first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, averaging 60% shooting for those two games. He averaged 46.2% from the arc in the first round too, far higher than his season average or his 29.4% rate against the Blazers this year.
Paul Millsap is the third of Denver’s four top rotation players to prosper against Portland this season. When facing the Blazers, Millsap topped 19 points on 63% shooting, with a shocking 60% three-point clip from the arc.
Portland is going to have trouble guarding one star-level frontcourt player, let alone two. Millsap’s torrid three-point shooting may not repeat in the post-season, but if Jokic pulls Portland centers out of the lane, offensive rebounding from the big forward could become a huge thorn in Portland’s side. Millsap won’t be the top option, but if the other Nuggets hold the Blazers down, Millsap is still capable of beating them up.
Jokic is everything for the Nuggets right now. If the Blazers can solve that problem while keeping other players covered—allowing Jokic to prosper without getting crushed—they have a chance. If Jokic proves an unstoppable force (which he pretty much has so far) and the Blazers have to dedicate extra defenders to the job, his passing becomes a major weapon, as does the collective prowess of his teammates. At that point the Blazers have to watch out for everyone: Murray, Harris, and Malik Beasley shooting outside or cutting, Millsap or Mason Plumlee on the glass.
It feels like the Blazers are going to hang on and give themselves an honest chance to win each game or they’re going to get dominated. If Denver’s plan works, it should really work. If it doesn’t, the Blazers still have the firepower to put their lights out. Denver has to watch out for Portland’s backcourt. The Blazers have to make sure one great player doesn’t make his teammates look like All-Stars, keeping a lid on Denver’s rebounding in the process.
Game 1 tips at 7:30, Pacific tonight on TNT.