The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets played a spirited Game 1 of their 2021 NBA Playoffs series. Despite Portland’s best defensive efforts, Denver’s MVP candidate, Nikola Jokic, scored 34 points in 36 minutes, enshrining himself as the finest center of this generation. But Jokic had an uncharacteristically-low one assist, part of Portland’s game plan to make him work hard and alone for his contributions. The Blazers, meanwhile, had no such trouble. Damian Lillard, Portland’s own superstar, drove and hit threes with abandon, forcing Denver to key on him. As soon as they did, he would whip the ball to open shooters, most of whom responded with threes. The Blazers ended up shooting 19-40, 47.5% from distance. Their quick, jumper-heavy attack was too much for Denver to handle, yielding a 123-109 victory, putting Portland up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series.
Lillard finished the game with 34 points and 13 assists, leading his team to the Promised Land. Carmelo Anthony was the safety valve, bailing out his current team at the expense of his former one to the tune of 18 points. Jusuf Nurkic had a brilliant game with 16 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and plenty of good defense.
The Nuggets came out with their first play looking for Nikola Jokic. He missed a drive from the left side of the floor. But after that, they played the mismatch-advantage card, going through forward Aaron Gordon on the run and in the halfcourt. Gordon scored and passed Denver to a super-quick start. When Michael Porter, Jr. also dropped in a couple, Terry Stotts called a, “Let’s Stop This” timeout. The score was 17-11, Denver. The time read 6:09. At that point Damian Lillard took over, driving to the lane off of screens and iso sets. It was the perfect thing to do, putting pressure on the Denver defense in turn.
At that point the second unit came in and, ironically, the defense got better. Jokic scored big, but his points came slow, in isolation with a lot of effort. Meanwhile Lillard’s driving started to pay dividends, As Denver fell back into the paint to stop him, Lillard hit Carmelo Anthony for a pair of open threes to tie the game at 26. Then Anfernee Simons struck and the Blazers were UP three despite all of Jokic’s scoring. When Anthony hit two MORE jumpers, he was so hot that Paris Hilton had to think up another word for him. At that point, Portland was officially on a run. Anthony and the bench squad saved Portland’s bacon big time in this quarter. ‘Melo had 12 points in 5 minutes of play and Portland led 35-30 after one.
The Blazers continued to play fairly smart as the second period began. They set screens on offense, packed the lane on defense. CJ McCollum became the primary man on the floor, but neither his defense nor his offense was up to the standards of the first quarter. Fortunately, Carmelo Anthony hit again, which kept the floor fairly spread. Portland needed it. As the minutes crawled along, it became readily apparent that a McCollum-Kanter-Simons-Anthony combination wasn’t going to be able to stop the Nuggets anywhere.
Jokic and Lillard returned around the 7:00 mark and exchanged threes. Denver continued to put pressure on the Blazers with drives inside, though, courtesy of Portland’s permissive guards. This caused Terry Stotts to call yet another, “Let’s Stop This” timeout because apparently, even in the playoffs, the Blazers can’t remember to defend for more than five minutes.
At that point, Lillard took command again. The Blazers set smart screens, forcing Jokic into switching mismatches, out of which Lillard scored. But Denver surged ahead anyway off of copious offensive rebounds. Portland would have benefitted with a couple of whistles off their drives, but they couldn’t seem to draw any. It was a shame, because they got Denver to switch on high screens almost every play. It was what it was.
When the smoke cleared, Denver led 61-58 at the half. Lillard had 14 at intermission, Jokic 22. Denver’s center had no assists, though, which was an indication that something was going right for Portland.
Portland came out in the third playing defense bad enough to induce passengers to reach for their barf bags. Facundo Campazzo started ripping them apart, as they simply refused to move after making an initial defensive commitment. One pass and Denver had any shot they wished.
The Blazers solved that problem the way they always do: Lillard and McCollum scoring, usually from distance. What the heck, it worked. When Lillard hit a deep, straightaway three with 6:54 left to pull Portland out of a deficit, he evened the score at 73. This proved to be the centerpiece of a 15-4 run that carried the Blazers through the quarter.
Nurkic had three fouls at this point, but Jokic made no move to drive on him, showing that the Blazers aren’t the only team to make curious decisions. Nurkic, in fact, did an amazing job keeping Jokic to the sides of the court instead of letting him operate down the middle. He was the bright spot for Portland on the defensive end.
Still, Jokic got his points (but no assists), so the Nuggets were not going to go away, run or no run. Denver continued to slice inside past defenders who couldn’t stop them, leaving Nurkic whaling and flailing at the rim. It’s a miracle he didn’t pick up 92 fouls.
When Nurkic sat, Kanter was not as quick to help and stop. Denver scored even easier. But here came Dame, hitting jumpers and free throws with equal ease. Once again when Denver’s defense keyed on him, Dame found open shooters. He capped off the period with an “Only Dame Could Do This” three, proving himself as big of a thorn in Denver’s side as Jokic was in Portland’s. The Blazers led 96-86 after three,
Portland put the pressure on at the start of the fourth. Anfernee Simons and CJ McCollum each hit a three, causing Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone to call his own, “Let’s Stop This” timeout. Revenge was sweet.
Unfortunately, it was also short-lived. The Nuggets came out of that timeout screening and driving. They turned the tables on Portland, speeding up the offense and forcing the Blazers to over-commit on defense, yielding layups or open jumpers.
But no matter how many shots the Nuggets hit, they just weren’t threes. McCollum hit a layup, then Simons connected AGAIN from deep, making up for a host of defensive sins.
Portland only led by 4 at that point, however, and that’s where the lead stayed for the middle minutes of the quarter. Campazzo had a gutsy play, stealing the ball away from Lillard in an iso set basically by poking it into Dame’s face. Lillard returned the favor a couple of plays later by hitting an, “In YOUR Face” three with barely a sliver of daylight off of a Nurkic screen. That, along with a ‘Melo conventional three-point play off of a brilliant Nurkic pass, pushed the lead back to 10. Then Nurkic converted his own and-one and the score read 116-103 with 3:40 remaining. When he hit again off of his own offensive rebound on the next possession, Portland led by 15 and even the most faithful Nuggets supporters began to doubt they could come back.
Nor could they. Jokic led another small run, but McCollum found Robert Covington open on the right side at the arc with 1:20 remaining. When his triple splashed down, Portland led 121-107 and the dagger was nailed in the coffin.
Stay tuned for Steve Dewald’s extended analysis of Game 1 coming up soon.
Game 2 is scheduled for Monday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific on TNT.