The Portland Trail Blazers face a win-or-go-home Game 6 versus the Denver Nuggets tonight. This series has brought out more Blazer’s Edge Mailbag questions than I’ve seen since LaMarcus Aldridge’s free agency was a hot topic. Today we’ll get to a half-dozen of the most popular queries.
After that [Game 5] can the Blazers still come back and win the series? I thought they would but now I don’t know. Restore my confidence?
In my opinion, that’s the wrong question. If we’re talking probabilities, Portland beating a Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets squad without Jusuf Nurkic on the floor—with Enes Kanter carrying a separated shoulder injury besides—was always a longshot. And yet they’ve already won two games and were in position to take another late into the fourth. Technically speaking they weren’t even supposed to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 1. Yet here we are.
If the Blazers ever did have a chance to defeat Denver, they still do. They will until the moment the opponent builds an insurmountable lead in Game 6 or 7. That’s the big-picture view.
The beauty of the playoffs, as opposed to the regular season or the off-season, is that the big picture doesn’t matter. Focus narrows to the next game, and within that game the next series of plays. Sometimes, as we found out in Game 5 versus the Thunder, the outcome hangs on one second and one shot.
A certain freedom comes with tunnel vision. Game 7 doesn’t matter right now, only Game 6 does. And Game 6 doesn’t really matter as a whole, either. It’ll be broken down into a series of critical plays throughout 48 (or more) minutes. Every possession will take on heightened importance. These are the moments everybody lives for. It’s going to be great.
Given this, the question at hand is not whether the Blazers can win a game, let alone two. The more important question is whether the Blazers are capable of making a good play... then the one after that... then the one after that.
We’ve not seen the Blazers get to the Western Conference Finals since 2000. We don’t know if they can now, either. We have seen them make a good play, though. They’ve made thousands of them this year alone! If they can answer the immediate question well, as we’ve seen them do before, wins and losses will take care of themselves.
It seems like the adjustments are all done but have we got anything left to change? What do we need to do to keep the series alive?
I don’t think the Blazers have many adjustments left outside of desperation moves. I’m not above wishing for a Meyers Leonard star turn to save a game, but the likelihood seems low. I suppose they could come up with a wrinkle we haven’t seen, but if so, it’ll probably boil down to one of these things:
- Guard the paint! Portland’s complete collapse in Game 5 started on the defensive end, with Denver waltzing in for layups. The Blazers haven’t ever stopped Denver from scoring in the lane, but they’ve at least slowed them down. In the two games the Blazers have won, the Nuggets have scored 90 and 102 points over 48 minutes. In the three they’ve lost, Denver has scored 124, 121, and 116. Curtailing easy points is critical to keeping the game manageable. If that’s not happening, Denver’s defense is good enough to keep Portland behind.
- Hit a Shot! Most everybody will live with Portland’s ancillary players missing a three-pointer. That’s a high-reward shot. Sooner or later they’ll probably connect. Portland wins that way. When those same players are missing open 8-footers, they might as well paste signs to their chest saying, “Lillard and McCollum, That Way ~~~~~~~>” Denver not only kept pressure on Lillard in Game 5, they kept a man in front of CJ at the same time. Portland’s guards will score anyway, but how long those possessions take and where the ball moves in the process affects things like rebounding, transition defense, and shots attempted. The Blazers need all of those things to work, which means they can’t let Denver load up against two players all night long. Nobody’s expecting offensive miracles, just hit decent shots like a pro.
- Rebound! The Nuggets were the number one rebounding team in the NBA this season, but the Blazers came in a close second. Even without Nurkic, they should be doing better than they have so far this series. If I were them, I’d throw Evan Turner’s Rolls Royce in neutral, then have players take turns putting their butts on the bumper and backing it out of the driveway. They have to move the Nuggets out of rebounding position and get their hands on the rock.
Do you see any critical factors in this series that we’re overlooking?
I think Enes Kanter’s shoulder injury is being undersold. He looked impeded, but decent, in the first couple of games. He’s playing like a shadow of himself now. He only gets obvious rebounds. He’s having trouble holding onto the ball. His shots come with less contact and look more tentative. The guy has given everything, but his body may not be able to keep up.
Let’s put it this way: Paul George needed surgery this week to repair a shoulder that was obviously ailing in Round 1. Impending-surgery George looked far better then than Kanter looked on Tuesday.
Can you please explain to me a flagrant foul? Because the one Joker did against Dame [earlier in the series] looked lots worse than the one Meyers did against Joker [in Game 5] but Meyers got the flagrant called but Joke-itch did not.
Nope. I can’t. I thought Jokic’s was much more flagrant than Leonard’s. I don’t think either turned the game, but I would have reversed the calls anyway.
The nearest I can guess is that the refs were attempting a bit of social engineering in an already-decided contest. They might have leaned towards the flagrant against Leonard because he was a little-used substitute, recently inserted, lining up against the opponent’s main player. The natural suspicion is that he’s in there to goon it up. They may have wanted to signal that this wouldn’t be allowed...that basketball would remain the focus rather than overt physicality. When they described Jokic as a “vulnerable, airborne player” after Leonard chucked him, they may have been underlining “vulnerable” more than “airborne”.
If this was part of the motivation, I can understand it in the name of keeping control of the game and protecting a series-changing player. That doesn’t mean I agree with it. Portland played well enough to make Mike Malone insert Jokic back in the game after the victory seemed secure. The Blazers shouldn’t be penalized for that. If Jokic can’t stand being bumped by a bench player, take him out.
What’s with Denver being able to go at Kanter’s shoulder with bumps but the Blazers can’t breathe funny without getting called for a foul?
A Curious Fan
Again, the Blazers aren’t losing this series because of officiating. They may not end up losing it all, for all we know!
Play between Kanter and Jokic has been hard, but it’s been going both ways. We notice it more coming this way because we follow the Blazers and because Kanter is injured. Then again, the Blazers weren’t shy about hitting George’s shoulder in Round 1. All’s fair that you can get away with.
For better or worse, part of the public explanation for the Blazers staying with Denver has been their physical play. Portland may have cultivated that reputation...I think they advanced that explanation earlier in the series. Winning because of physicality doesn’t work long-term because the opponent usually adjusts and retaliates. Maybe it also affects the perception of referees.
Either way, it’s too late to argue about it. Nobody ends up remembering these things, or who was injured, or who took a cheap shot against whom. They only remember if you won or not. If the Blazers think the refs are lined up against them, I guess part of the challenge is to get far enough ahead to render whistles moot. There’s no other choice at this point.
I think these playoffs have been spectacular. I’m curious whether you see them the same way and whether you’ll think this year has been successful if we lose tomorrow night.
I think they’ve been spectacular too, Linda. I also think we should enjoy every moment we have in them. As I said in an earlier playoffs Mailbag, the only real response to the post-season is concentration on the next game and optimism about the possibility of winning it. That’s true if your team is up 3-0, down 0-3, or anywhere in between. Add in a miracle shot for the ages, a somewhat-surprising first-round victory, and a credible second-round showing against a fully-stocked opponent and it’s hard to be anything but pleased.
Unfortunately, playoffs mode ends with the final buzzer in the last game of the season. At that point, big-picture, sensible planning replaces, “Keep hope alive and see what happens.”
We won’t delve too deeply into the implications right now. There will be plenty of time to do that when the season is done. Let’s just say that a wildly-successful playoffs run (given the conditions and opponents the team faced) does not necessarily translate into a wildly-successful big picture.
In the long run, a second-round loss is just that, no more and no less. It’s better than a first-round exit but it still doesn’t answer this team’s questions. Once again the Blazers will be in the grey area where anything can be spun and explained, but tangible results are slight and future expectations are fuzzy. Meanwhile they’ll all be a season older and a year closer to major contract decisions.
All the (well-deserved) applause in the world for Portland’s 2019 playoffs performance is not going to prevent Damian Lillard from turning 30 next summer. Nor will we have any idea whether the team, as constituted, is capable of making a real run.
If they don’t want to face those questions, the Blazers need to find a way to win tonight. Nothing else will suffice.
Thanks for all the Mailbag questions! Like you, I hope that we get a chance to do at least one more Playoffs Mailbag before the season is through! Either way, keep them coming to email@example.com. I do see all your contract questions, but I’m going to save those for the off-season. May that be weeks away still.
Game 6 between the Blazers and Nuggets tips at 7:30, Pacific tonight on ESPN.