The Portland Trail Blazers put up a good fight against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in Game 1 of their second-round NBA playoffs series. Denver’s center looked fantastic, notching 37 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. Damian Lillard led all scorers with 39. Enes Kanter marched to 26 points while playing with a separated shoulder. It was everything Blazers fans could have hoped for, except the win. After all the scoring and energy expended, turnovers, defensive weakness, and muddled contributions from the supporting cast put Portland on the wrong end of a 121-113 final score.
The Nuggets telegraphed their intentions early, running Kanter through three separate screen attempts before Jokic launched a perimeter jumper over his outstretched arms, all on the first play of the game. Kanter kept pace, delivering 10 points of dunk-fueled damage in the quarter off of pick and rolls. Jokic would only score 9.
A couple of unfortunate switches aside, the Blazers actually handled screen and roll defense decently. They had a harder time with Paul Millsap posting the smaller Al-Farouq Aminu. Like Kanter, Millsap would score 10 in the period.
The Blazers were saved by CJ McCollum, who hit a couple of threes, then drove to the rack on the way to 10 of his own. Portland blistered Denver in the paint, then Lillard hit a couple of threes late. It was a symphony of offense from both teams in a defensively-impoverished frame. The score read 32-all after one.
Rodney Hood carried Portland’s bench unit early in the second...a true reserve lineup without Lillard or McCollum. Hood delivered a couple of threes and a couple of free throws, bridging the gap. Zach Collins attacked the rim opportunistically. Meyers Leonard missed his first couple shots and faded into irrelevance quickly. Overall, the first bench shift was a success.
Portland’s starters continued where they left off. The Blazers seemed content to go beneath Denver screens, conceding the deep shot as long as nobody rolled to the hoop unopposed. Millsap continued to torch Aminu and company but the Blazers kept their heads and didn’t allow second shots. Lillard connected on jumpers, then went to the hoop. McCollum caught fire so dramatically that the Pepsi Center sprinkler system went off.
With the offense rolling, the Blazers maintained a narrow lead deep into the quarter. The final minutes would see it evaporate. Denver went on an 11-4 run to close the half, courtesy of Portland turnovers and slightly-sketchy whistles. Watching the Blazers give back everything they’d earned in just a few possessions was tough, but Denver led by just 3, 58-55, at the half.
The Blazers started the third period in unfortunate fashion, continuing their terrible turnover streak. At one point, literally half of their possessions were ending in turnovers. This cost them scoring opportunities and allowed Denver quick shots. The Nuggets built a 73-63 lead early, then spent the period defending it.
Portland got effective scoring from Lillard, who scored 10 in the frame, and Hood, who reprised his second-quarter scoring tear. Despite this, they couldn’t make headway because their defense got cracked,
The Blazers got bound up with referees after a streak of bad calls, then watched Denver pick them apart with high screens. Portland’s solution of going underneath picks went south when the Nuggets started hitting threes. When the Blazers closed to cover the long shot, no bigs remained in the paint to secure the rebound. With Portland scrambling, space in the middle opened up for Denver’s offense. There stood Jokic, tall and skilled and looking unstoppable. He precipitated the cascade the Blazers had hoped to avoid. Jokic started passing, boarding, drawing fouls, and scoring like hotcakes. Everything clicked for Denver; every Portland point came hard. Denver led 93-84 after three.
Hood hit a three to start the fourth quarter, followed by a free-throw-earning drive from Lillard. The Blazers would have been off to the races, but for a pair of triples from Malik Beasley. Those six points represented symbolically how the rest of the game would go and tangibly how the Nuggets would come to win it. Every time Portland did something well, Denver answered. Except the Nuggets expended less energy doing it, playing far more into their game plan than the Blazers did.
On seemingly every possession in the fourth Denver discovered wide open shots OR Jokic single-covered OR free throws. That was about the time the lights went out for Portland. The Blazers bailed water as fast as they could, but they were already swamped and the flow was too strong.
Lillard made a three and a couple of layups in the period, finishing what he started. Portland ended up with a respectable 113 points. Offense wasn’t enough. Defense and rebounding never rose to the occasion in the second half, and Denver’s victory was assured.
The Blazers ended up shooting 52% from the field and 38% from the arc. Lillard scored 39 and Kanter added 26. Those huge numbers should have given the Blazers a better shot than they had. Denver’s key second-half adjustments took away the opportunity.
As foreshadowed, Portland’s defensive scheme was basically to stay towards the rim on screens involving Jokic, letting him shoot over the top if necessary but preventing him from getting into the middle with space to operate. It worked well as long as the Nuggets weren’t hitting deep shots. Denver went 5-15 on shots beyond 22 feet in the first half. In the pivotal third quarter, they hit 5 of 7 deep balls. They’d finish 6-12 for the second half.
As soon as the Blazers had to get out and cover distance shooters, their plan took a left turn into oblivion. They didn’t always close out well. Even when they did, that left Jokic single-covered and free to roam in the middle. Since the action came off screens, he’d often be in there against a mismatched defender (leaving Kanter on the outside guarding shooters). Even when he didn’t get the foul or the shot, Jokic pulled the defense inward, leaving another shooter open. Murray, Beasley, and Gary Harris all feasted on open looks, while Mason Plumlee snagged rebounds and Jokic paraded to the foul line against smaller or out of position defenders.
There were bright spots in this game. Lillard’s 39 was impressive. He got to the foul line 13 times, edging Jokic in free throw attempts by one. Kanter’s 26 came from 11-14 shooting, far better than even the most optimistic Blazers supporter could have hoped for. Rodney Hood ended up with a righteous 17 off the bench.
Portland’s top four scorers tallied 98 points against 90 for Denver’s top four. A 6-point edge in paint scoring, a small, 27-31 deficit in free throw attempts, and winning the overall rebounding battle all point to a Portland win as well.
The Blazers shot themselves in the foot with 18 turnovers. Lillard had an unfortunate 6, but both Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless contributed more turnovers (3 each) than points (2 each). These weren’t aggressive TO’s either, but faults of hesitation and ugly indecision.
“Hesitation and indecision” described much of Portland’s supporting cast. Zach Collins was opportunistic, making only a couple mistakes. He was probably the best of them. Evan Turner did well enough on defense and was fantastic on the boards. He played like a true veteran. Denver shut Seth Curry out of the game. He never got a great look at a three and the Blazers didn’t seem interested in screening him into one. Meyers Leonard wasn’t close to ready. Together with Aminu and Harkless, those players combined for 15 points on 6-17 shooting with 8 turnovers and 16 personal fouls.
Portland’s main scorers couldn’t pass to half of their teammates. Denver knew it, which made the defense even stiffer when and where it counted.
Missing an uncharacteristic 7 free throws out of 27 didn’t help the Blazers’ cause.
Hope for Game 2
For all the defensive difficulty and turnover problems, the Blazers kept the deficit under 10 points for almost the entire game. Even at their worst moments, they never lost touch. Two fewer turnovers and three more free throws could well have put this game within a single possession in the final minute. If Portland hadn’t been uncharacteristically bad in those areas, looking great in several others would have mattered.
Credit Denver for making adjustments and exploiting the holes in Portland’s coverage. Credit the Blazers for great shooting and a pretty solid game plan, considering their personnel difficulties.
Losing Game 1 of a series isn’t ideal, but for the road team it’s not the end of the world either. If they’re willing to let Denver’s world center around Jokic’s scoring and they’re fairly sure Lillard can come up with more big games, the Blazers probably have to tighten up their execution for Game 2 rather than revolutionize their approach. Their smaller defenders need to be quicker around screens. Their forwards need to keep rebounding and show a pulse. They need to take care of the ball better. If those things happen, Game 2 should be exciting, at minimum, winnable for sure.
Game 2 tips at 6:00 PM, Pacific on Wednesday, May 1st.