The Portland Trail Blazers cruised to a 123-109 Game 1 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Fueled by 34 points from Damian Lillard, the Blazers snatched home-court advantage from the Nuggets with a decisive win to open the series. For the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic did his best to keep his undermanned squad in the contest with 34 points of his own. In the end, it was the Blazers’ hot three-point shooting that delivered a win over the Nuggets.
Before we get into tonight’s key points, make sure you check out our quarter-by-quarter recap by clicking here.
The Battle for Best Player
The Lillard vs. Jokic battle delivered in Game 1. Each player imposed their will at different points of the game. Lillard, who struggled to get his shot rolling in the first half, did a superb job of getting everyone involved. Outside of passing, Lillard made up for his lack of shooting by getting to the free throw line. Whenever the momentum started to shift to Denver, Lillard put his head down and created contact.
In the third quarter, following a 12-minute run where the Nuggets re-claimed the lead, Lillard shined. He dismantled Denver’s defense and racked up 15 points from all three levels. In 40 minutes of action, Lillard recorded 34 points and 13 assists.
Regardless of the game’s final result, Jokic performed at an MVP level. He dictated the pace of play, searched for mismatches and put the Blazers’ defense in a blender for extended runs. In the first half, once Jusuf Nurkic headed to the bench, Jokic successfully targeted Enes Kanter in the post.
Jokic matched Lillard’s scoring output with 34 points. In the paint, he snatched 16 rebounds.
The Bench Delivers
The Blazers stuck to a strict eight-man rotation in Game 1. Coach Terry Stotts turned to Anfernee Simons, Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter to provide timely boosts. In the first half, both Melo and Simons torched the nets from beyond the arc. Melo abandoned his penchant for contested looks and committed to catch-and-shoot opportunities. In the first quarter, Simons and Melo combined to go a perfect 5-of-5 from beyond the arc.
Melo’s scorching-hot efficiency cooled in the second half. That was not the case for Simons, though. The third-year guard provided steady minutes throughout the second half. Thanks to Simons’ production, the Blazers were able effectively juggle the minutes assigned to Lillard, McCollum and Powell.
Don’t Sleep on Campazzo
On paper, Facundo Campazzo is an inviting matchup for Lillard. In Game 1, the fiery 5-foot-10 guard did not back down from his cumbersome assignment. He fought through screens to stick to Lillard and fearlessly got to his own spots on the offensive end. Early foul trouble derailed Campazzo’s night, but he did prove that he is not a push over during his stints on the floor.
Campazzo finished with a modest eight points and five assists.
Nurkic Plays Big
Like Campazzo, Nurkic entered the series with a MVP-level defensive assignment. After a bit of a rocky start, the Bosnian Beast turned full heel on his former team. He stuck to Jokic in multiple actions and shifted the momentum of the contest with thunderous dunks. Defensively, Nurkic found a perfect balance of limiting penetration and respecting Denver’s outside shooting.
Nurkic finished the night with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Reasons For Optimism
- Robert Covington was in the zone on the defensive end. The Blazers decided to place Covington across from Aaron Gordon on the defensive end. That matchup allowed Covington to play with more freedom. Throughout the night, he was able to provide help and the Blazers were not punished when he drifted from his assignment.
- Game 1’s result is repeatable. The Blazers’ superb three-point shooting was not by accident. Portland’s offense is clicking and the ball is moving effortlessly around the perimeter. The Blazers connected on an eye-popping 47.5 percent of their three-pointers and they could have easily crossed the 50-percent mark if a few more wide-open looks dropped.
Cause for Concern
- Norman Powell trudged through a forgettable first half of basketball. Defensively, he missed rotations and left shooters wide open. Offensively, he was indecisive and could not get his shot going. He did bounce back when it mattered most, but it was not an encouraging start to the series for the former Raptors guard.
- The Nuggets absolutely crushed the Blazers on the glass tonight. Denver generated second chance points with little resistance in the opening quarter of Saturday’s game. The Blazers’ sluggish rotations in the first half created a massive void underneath and the Nuggets exploited it. Denver finished Game 1 with a 48-39 rebounding advantage.
The Blazers and Nuggets return to action for Game 2 on Monday.