The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets will face each other in Game 7 of their 2019 playoffs series today. After ten contests this season, one, final time they’ll line up across from each other. This time, only one will advance.
The number of Mailbag questions I’ve gotten about Game 7 and the series has been overwhelming. There’s no way I could do justice to them all, so in these few hours before tip-off, I’m just going to share my impressions of the game and the moment. Hopefully that will suffice to answer most of your concerns. The only real answer at this point is, “We’ll see today.” The teams will leave it out there on the court. How that turns out is anybody’s guess.
Game 7’s are a different animal. By this time in a series, both teams are worn down to the core of their identities. Everybody has seen the tricks, the adjustments, and the counter-adjustments. Everybody is tired. Everybody knows what’s at stake. Game 7’s are like two gears grinding together when all the grease has worn off. There’s going to be plenty of noise, a fair amount of stress, then one of those gears is going to lose its teeth and break.
Game 7’s are often more boring affairs than the contests that preceded them. They generally go towards the naturally-advantaged team. If all else fails, interpret that as “home team”. Scores aren’t often as close as people assume they’d be. We’re far more likely to see a Game 5-type affair today than a quadruple-overtime Game 3. If it’s not a blowout for Denver, the Blazers did well.
Unfortunately, Denver holds the unstoppable advantage in Nikola Jokic. The Blazers have been compensating for him all series long, for better or worse. Sometimes, Portland’s adjustments have thrown the Nuggets. The Blazers have won games with physicality and three-guard lineups. Denver will be ready for each. Absent secrets and wrinkles, Jokic’s effect on Portland’s defense stands out like a mountain.
There’s also reason to hope Portland can buck the “natural advantage” trend. If the game remains close, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are better finishers than Jokic is in isolation. If anything, he’s been unable to dominate down the stretches of tight games this series. The more he takes on his shoulders, the more Portland’s defense hones in and the more Denver stalls. Also, the Blazers have played fewer games in the last month than Denver has...though mile-high altitude may compensate for that.
Basically, if there’s a run-away, it’s likely to be Denver and it’s likely to be over. Portland can’t let the Nuggets get out to a 17-point lead without reeling them back in. If the score stays tight (as it did in Denver’s Round 1 seventh game against San Antonio), the Blazers have a good chance to take the game. They’ve got scorers, they’ve got smarts, and they’ve got a chance to get inside Denver’s head by keeping the pressure on.
The Nuggets will want to break Portland early. The Blazers need to survive that, then put steady pressure on during the second half, shining a light on every crack in Denver’s facade.
No matter how the teams are playing, the later the clock gets with you being able to say, “The Blazers are still in this,” the more momentum shifts towards Portland.
Here are some basic keys to the contest:
- As has been true all series, the Blazers are going to want to keep Jokic on the perimeter, scoring after dribbles, preferably in isolation. They cannot keep him from getting the ball. They cannot keep him from putting up points. They want to make his offense take time and require plenty of motion. They’re OK if he passes as long as the Nuggets have to pass again before a decent shot appears. They want to keep him out of place for offensive rebounds. Portland’s in big trouble if Jokic can stand still, survey the floor, then make one quick pass for the score. They’re also in big trouble if he can score himself inside, with ease. The Blazers don’t need to stop Jokic; they need to make it hard for him to operate.
- This actually holds true for Portland’s entire defense. Don’t ask whether Denver’s shot went in, ask, “Was it easy?” That will tell you everything you need to know about Portland’s chances.
- For the most part, both teams have been willing to live with secondary players attempting three-point shots, even if those shots are open. Whichever team’s associate scorers find the range first will have a huge advantage. Denver’s guards and forwards have been prone to missing, but the numbers say they’re more reliable than Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless. This may affect how long Portland’s starting forwards can remain on the court.
- Continuing that thought... At this point Portland’s defense is more about covering space (between Jokic and shooters or shooters and the rebound) than about one-on-one skill. They may sacrifice individual defensive prowess in favor of anyone who can move their feet on “D” and hit an open shot.
- Portland’s rebounding disadvantage in this series has been well-chronicled. At this point, they can’t change scheme or personnel, nor the balance, probably. The Blazers can compensate by getting to 50-50 balls first. This includes some rebounds, but involves a wider variety of plays. When Denver gets to the ball first, Portland wilts. Neither offense nor defense create a reliable edge if the Blazers cede the plays in the middle.
- Speaking of, if they have the gas in the tank, running Denver a little wouldn’t hurt. Portland wants the Nuggets tired by the mid-third so their advantage at the guard position shows more than Denver’s advantage with the big men. Depending on their physical condition energy expenditure should be a plus for Portland. Altitude and injuries could wreak havoc with that, but if the tempo is high and it’s not a Denver run-away, that’s good for Portland.
Denver just has to play well to win this game. If they do that, Portland’s scrambling defense will not be able to impede them. But the Nuggets haven’t always played well, nor have they put away opponents...including Portland in every game of this series but one. If the Nuggets leave a passing lane open, the Blazers should have the horsepower to overtake them. If it’s neck and neck at the finish line, the Blazers have not only a real chance to win it, but a good one.
The Blazers haven’t treated their fans to something like this for 20 years. Win or lose, they’re playing games that matter. Hopefully they’ll rise to the occasion, playing in a way that matters just as much. If so, it should be a heck of a ride.
Game 7 tips at 12:30, Pacific today on ABC. Enjoy it, folks. This is why winning matters. This is why they play.