The Portland Trail Blazers face multiple challenges as they prepare to take on the third-seeded Denver Nuggets on Saturday. The matchup will reveal teams fairly equally matched in talent, but contrasting in style.
Over the next couple of days, we’re going to look at what each team does best, then surmise how the opponent might counter during the seven-game series. Today we’re going to take a look at the Nuggets’ offense, comparing their strong points to Portland’s own attack, also to the Blazers defense.
Here are five things the Denver Nuggets do well, with Portland’s possible avenues of approach.
Score Early, Score Often
The Nuggets scored 115.1 points per game this season, good for 8th in the NBA. This is fairly impressive, as they ranked 26th in the league in pace. They score legitimately, not cheaply.
Denver also likes to jump on opponents. They were second in the league in 1st Quarter scoring this season, averaging 31.1 points in the opening frame.
The Blazers improved defensively over the last month of the season, but they still ended up 23rd in points allowed, at 114.3 per game. That was, by far, the worst mark among the Top 10 teams in the Western Conference this year. Among all teams in the playoffs and play-ins, only the Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers exceeded Portland’s points allowed by a significant margin.
Once Jusuf Nurkic and Norman Powell became settled in Portland’s starting lineup in April, opponent scoring went down, but not by that much. Over their last 20 games, the Blazers still allowed 112.4 per game, a mark that would have left them 18th in the league if sustained for the entire season.
The Blazers might have to live with the idea of Denver scoring big, but they may also be able to fight fire with fire. Portland averaged 116.1 points per game themselves, higher than the Nuggets. The only team to notch higher-scoring first periods than Denver this year was...you guessed it, the Blazers. Portland might not need to blunt their opponent as much as match them to make this a series.
Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how many fireworks come out of the opening 12 minutes in each game. If either team starts slow, that’s a bad sign.
The Nuggets finished 8th in the NBA in points in the paint this season, averaging 49.7 per game. The Blazers weren’t even close, finishing the year dead last with 39.4.
That’s not necessarily a shame for Portland. They rely on the three-point shot. If they score in the lane it’s probably on a put-back, not a post up. But this is something the Blazers will need to watch. If Denver has their way inside, Portland will need threes just to keep even. That’s a precarious position, as three-point shooting is inherently more mercurial than lane play.
The Blazers aren’t horrible defending the lane. They allowed 47.4 points per game, right at the league median, in 14th place. They should be able to hold their own in there. They just can’t relax or get permissive, as Denver will take advantage.
Playing the Percentages
As you might expect from a high-scoring, low-paced team, the Nuggets are among the best combined shooting teams in the league. They finished the season 4th in overall field goal percentage at 48.5%. 8th in three-point percentage at 37.7%.
The second number is scarier for the Blazers than the first. Portland’s three-point percentage was an impressive 38.5%. That’s their calling card. Yet it’s less than a percentage point higher than Denver’s rate, only two slots better in league rank.
Portland finished the season 20th in three-point percentage allowed (37.2%). That isn’t awful, but also doesn’t help.
The Blazers can afford to have Denver shoot a reasonable percentage overall. The Nuggets will score in the paint; it’s all but guaranteed. The difference between that being annoying and fatal may be the three-point percentage Denver accumulates. If the Nuggets can match the Blazers at the arc, their consistent, superior, interior scoring will be hard for Portland to overcome. The Blazers have got to make a credible showing inside, but they absolutely cannot allow the Nuggets to shoot over their heads from distance while doing so.
Portland’s defensive philosophy has always been to cut off the interior first, then recover hard to the arc, leaving the opponent mid-range shots as necessary. That’s exactly correct here. The big question is, will the Blazers be able to execute? There’s a real danger of Portland’s defense springing a leak either inside or outside, forcing them to oversell to plug the hole. If that happens, Denver will just score wherever Portland isn’t, alternating between short shots and threes, laughing all the way to victory.
The Trail Blazers have been praised for their offensive rebounding prowess this season. Largely thanks to Enes Kanter, they posted the 11th best offensive rebounding percentage in the league at 23.0%.
The bad news: Denver finished at 24.7%, good for 2nd overall, better than Portland.
Offensive rebounds aren’t usually a decisive category. They’re the only stat that requires something bad to happen before they count: a missed shot. The significance comes in taking away a presumed Portland advantage. What the Blazers do, Denver does equally well or better in this case. It’s not just that a quarter of Denver’s bricks go right back into their hands, it’s that Portland often earns an edge in this category that they just might not get in this series.
Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the Nuggets finished 2nd in the NBA with 0.265 assists per possession this season. (Portland was famously 30th in this category with 0.209.) Assists aren’t automatically an indicator of success. Both good and mediocre teams rank at the top of this scale, while some great teams rank low. It’s more an indicator of how the Nuggets like to play.
The Blazers cannot presume that they have a possession contained just because they have met the ball at the point of attack. This is particularly true as they defend Nikola Jokic, who is an assist machine at center. Portland will have to be both decisive and judicious about how they plan for Jokic, or any double-team.
If the Blazers take the same approach on every play, Denver is going to read it and pass around them easily. They’ll need to mix up coverages. And no matter what coverage they use, they absolutely must recover and/or rotate quickly. This is, by far, the most vulnerable aspect of Portland’s defense. If they can’t figure it out, they better hope ALL their threes go in. Otherwise, this is going to be a short series.
If the ball moves fast and easy for Denver, that’s a bad sign for the Blazers. If Denver gets bogged into isolation ball, even if one of their stars is taking most of the shots, that’s probably a Blazers advantage. As long as the Nuggets’ offense comes slower and without passes, Portland will be happy.
Tomorrow: Portland’s offensive prowess...