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5 Things the Trail Blazers Do Well (and How the Nuggets Might Counter)

Portland is an offensive powerhouse. What does Denver need to worry about in a seven-game series?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers thrive on offense. That story won’t change when they face the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs this week. The Blazers probably won’t be able to overcome Nikola Jokic and company by shutting them down on the defensive end. Portland will want to run up the score and see what happens.

That doesn’t mean that any old shot will do for Portland, or that Denver will be powerless to stop them. Here are four areas in which the Blazers’ offense has thrived this season, and the ways in which the Nuggets might counter, or even try to match, them.

Make Your Point

As we chronicled yesterday, the Blazers are 5th in the league overall in points scored per game at 116.1, with Denver close behind (8th, 115.1 per game). Both also come up HUGE in the first quarter, ranking first and second, respectively, in the league. We won’t belabor the point, other than to say that sauce for the goose is also good for the gander. The Blazers are just as capable of streaking away from the Nuggets early as Denver is of streaking away from Portland.

Two modifiers color the picture.

Denver’s defense is better, both overall and in the first period. The Nuggets are 8th in the league overall in points allowed at 110.1 per game, Portland 23rd at 114.3. Denver is even better in the first period, allowing only 27.5 points (6th in the NBA) while Portland allows 29.5 (25th).

But the Blazers have a trump card. They’re 6th in the league in fourth-quarter points at 28.0, whereas the Nuggets languish in 21st with 26.6. Denver is also good at limiting opponents in the fourth, but if the Blazers can start games strong and not dig a hole, they have a reasonable expectation that their starting lineup will be ready to carry them through crunch time.

The Long Game

It’ll come as no surprise to anybody that Portland’s three-point game is exquisite. They rank 6th in the NBA in three-point percentage (38.5%), 2nd in the league in three-pointers attempted per game (40.8), and 2nd in the league in percentage of points made from three-pointers (40.6%).

The Nuggets aren’t far behind in percentage (37.7%) but they attempt fewer and rely on distance shooting less. Unless Portland mortgages the farm to cover Nikola Jokic, leaving Denver’s perimeter players wide open, Denver won’t match the Blazers from the arc.

On the other end, the Nuggets are just a shade above the league median in defending three-pointers by percentage, but they’re below in three-pointers allowed per game and percentage of points from distance by opponents. Denver can be intimidating on defense in their wheelhouse, but they rely on size as much as speed. If the Blazers are able to move the ball inside-out, they should be able to generate the good looks from distance that they need in order to prosper. Conversely, if Denver can find a way to bother Portland at the arc, it’s likely to be a long night and a short series for the Blazers.

A Buffet of Shots

The Blazers rank 4th in the NBA in overall field goals attempted per game at 91.1. In a familiar refrain, Denver likes to get up shots too; they rank 9th at 89.2. But here’s the catch: the Nuggets rank 3rd in opponent field goals allowed, averaging 85.4. Part of that is pace (26th in the league for the Nuggets) but part of it is intentional.

This is a hidden, but huge, point of contention between the teams. The Blazers don’t bank on making all their shots. They want to shoot the first open look they get, depending on volume and a reasonable percentage to generate more points than the opponent does by being slower and more choosy.

Absent fickle fate, Portland’s percentage isn’t likely to rise with fewer attempts. Their final tally will fall instead.

The Nuggets might be able to garner an advantage by simply slowing the Blazers down, limiting the total number of shots attempted. Portland will thrive if, and when, their offense keeps churning out shots despite Denver’s efforts. Obviously nobody wants to see ugly attempts, but on balance, it’ll be better for the Blazers to fire aggressively and keep the pressure on than to try and out-chess-match their opponents.

Assists and Turnovers

We all know the Blazers don’t score off of assists. They rank dead last in assists per possession with a rate of 0.209. This is mitigated by their incredibly low turnover rate. They rank first in the league in that category.

This duality has generally served Portland well. As we just mentioned, quantity and type of shot matters to them more than artistic style or classic play development. They’re a McDonald’s offense, with billions and billions served, not a frou-frou Michelin-starred joint. Like fast food drive-thru employees, every time they shoot, the Blazers are thinking, “Shut up, eat your burger, and take the L.”

I would add an asterisk to this, though it’s not clearly supported by stats. It’s probably going to be important that a fair number of Portland three-pointers are assisted in this series. Part of the reason that the Blazers don’t tally assists in general is that the players they’re passing to are creators. They get the ball to CJ McCollum in the right spot, he works his magic, and two points appear. That’s a near-sure bucket off the correct pass, but it doesn’t count as an assist because McCollum is going to take a couple dribbles and make a move before putting it in.

This is not true of catch-and-shoot threes, which is a weapon the Blazers need against Denver. As much as they love the long ball, they’re not going to win the series by dribbling into contested, isolation heaves against a set defense. The Blazers don’t need 40 assists a game. They need the 20 they do get to have an out-sized effect, counting for 50+ points and making Denver’s defense move to the edges of the floor so Portland’s stars have more room to work.

Screen Door

The Blazers made hay over the last month of the season by pulling their centers out to the top of the arc and screening multiple times for Damian Lillard, or whatever ball-handler they fielded at the moment. This is a call-back to classic Portland offense. They need to keep it up against Denver.

A screen play does more than free the dribbler for an open attempt. Frankly, Lillard could probably do that himself. Picks drag the opposing big—in this case, Denver’s superstar—into the play. Setting a screen, the Blazers make Nikola Jokic move across the floor, perhaps absorb contact, and place himself at risk of getting switched into a mismatch or getting tagged with a personal foul. They also involve Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter in the offense, turning them into threats that the Nuggets have to guard consistently, not occasionally.

Jokic isn’t made of glass. No single screen is going to matter. But that’s not the point. Portland’s goal should be to wear down Jokic just enough that three-pointers and rotations in the fourth aren’t automatic. If he front-irons the jumper with 6:00 left in the game, the Blazers did their job.

When it comes to Jokicm Portland’s motto in this series should be, “No Possessions Off”. Drawing him into screen situations is a core part of that philosophy.

We published Denver’s offensive strengths yesterday. You can see that post here. What elements of the game do you think either team (or both teams) will take advantage of? Share in the comments below!

Game 1 of the Blazers and Nuggets first-round series will tip off at 7:30 PM, Pacific on Saturday.