The Trail Blazers endured their first 2019 NBA Playoffs loss in front of the Moda Center crowd at the hands of the Nuggets on Sunday. After memorable and emotional victories in their last two outings at home, Game 4 proved that the Western Conference Semifinals series between these two Northwest Division rivals is headed towards a gritty finish.
Despite relinquishing home-court advantage back to the Nuggets, the Blazers have plenty of options to lean on as the series hits its stretch run.
Lillard Will Find his Groove
It is a testament to how good Damian Lillard is playing to suggest that he is in a funk when he is averaging 27.3 points per game. That being said, Lillard’s three-point shooting has significantly dipped through four games against the Nuggets. His 25.7 three-point percentage in this round is significantly lower than his regular season conversion rate of 36.9. From a law of averages standpoint, Lillard is bound to catch fire from beyond the arc before the series comes to a close.
Outside of Lillard’s own shooting, the Blazers’ supporting cast can alleviate pressure with production of their own. Like The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor explained, the Nuggets are shadowing Lillard with Paul Millsap in half-court sets. Portland can keep Millsap honest in two different ways: keep the faith in Al-Farouq Aminu’s shooting or shift to a smaller lineup. The latter of those two options appears to be more appealing, but the Blazers need all the help they can get when it comes to rebounding.
Aminu’s 19-point performance in Game 4 was encouraging, but he is now five games removed from his last outing that featured multiple three-pointers. Like Lillard, Aminu is due to find his rhythm from beyond the arc.
On the heels of a seven-game series against the Spurs, the Nuggets did a superb job of bouncing back quickly from a quadruple-overtime loss on Sunday. But that doesn’t mean that the extra minutes aren’t adding up for coach Mike Malone’s squad. The NBA’s leaderboard for minutes played this postseason is headlined by three members of the Nuggets: Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray top the list in minutes played. An even closer look shows that Jokic and Harris are the only two players that logged over 400 minutes of action.
The side effects from Game 3’s finish didn’t take center stage on Sunday, but that extra burn could add up if this series reaches Game 7.
This might be the biggest stretch given the cringe-worthy moments Zach Collins has produced at times against the Nuggets. Regardless of a few mental lapses, the second-year big man has went toe-to-toe with Jokic on a few separate occasions. Like the entire Nuggets roster outside of Millsap, Collins is gaining valuable postseason experience with each shift on the floor. If coach Terry Stotts continues to look past Meyers Leonard on the bench, Collins’ ability to impact the rebounding margin could prove crucial.
Collins’ time on the court surpassed the 20-minute threshold for the first time in the postseason in Game 4. Take away a costly technical and you can find a handful of encouraging moments from the former Gonzaga standout on the defensive end. At worst, Collins’ reputation as an irritant could prove valuable in a prolonged series.
Back to Denver
Sunday’s loss carried an extra sting due to the Blazers’ inability to secure a defining 3-1 series lead. While Game 4’s result was far from ideal, Stotts’ squad has proven they can win in Denver. On the road, the Blazers can keep the momentum in their favor by taking care of the little things. Portland committed a series-low 11 turnovers when they captured a 97-90 win in the Pepsi Center.
A victory in Game 5 would put the Nuggets back in the Moda Center with their backs against the wall.