The Portland Trail Blazers put on a clinic in Game 1 of their playoffs series against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Damian Lillard matching Denver center Nikola Jokic point for point, combined with the Portland defense limiting Jokic to but one assist, allowed Portland’s advantage among supporting players to swing the game.
Portland did almost everything imaginable to put the Nuggets, and their presumed NBA MVP, at a disadvantage. They pushed Jokic to the sides of the court instead of letting him operate in the middle. They baited him into becoming a volume scorer instead of operating as the hub of Denver’s offense. They banged against him and ran him around the floor for three quarters, then streaked past him in the decisive fourth period. From Portland’s point of view, the game was a masterpiece.
Portland’s performance should provide perspective for those who have been critical of Head Coach Terry Stotts and his coaching staff. The Blazers didn’t just beat Denver, they dissected them surgically. They stared down one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NBA and, at least for a night, solved it.
Full credit should also go to Lillard, who became the engine for Portland’s offense. His 34 points—more than a quarter of the team total of 123—stand testimony to his individual prowess. The Nuggets had one name circled on their whiteboard. Lillard took their board, tossed the whole thing out the window, and spent the night flicking dry-erase pens against their foreheads. 13 assists for Lillard show how badly Denver’s defense collapsed. He bent them so far out of shape that his teammates couldn’t help but score, whether or not he controlled the ball in a given set.
Though the performance was grand, it’s also in the past. The playoffs are all about adjustments. The Blazers won’t be able to rest on their laurels, cruising to a second win. Denver is going to change their approach. Portland will need to be aware, making a couple adjustments of their own.
First and foremost, the Blazers need to realize that the Nuggets are not going to utilize Jokic the same way in Game 2. Denver appeared to take the approach that anything their superstar did in Game 1 would prove satisfactory. Jokic ended up on the sides and angles of the court on too many possessions. (He’s deadly down the middle; anywhere else is second-best.) Jokic also caught too far outside to make plays quickly, unless they were obvious, open face-up jumpers. His scoring attempts were successful, but they took too long.
Denver is likely to plant Jokic in the middle of the floor, closer to the basket in Game 2. They can’t have missed his 8-12 shooting clip inside the lane in Game 1, nor his much more pedestrian 6-15 rate outside it. Starting him closer in will allow Jokic to wheel instantly on Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter, forcing the Blazers to give up the layup or commit to double-coverage.
Any double-team action on Portland’s part will leave them vulnerable to Jokic’s passing. Denver’s Game 1 strategy of starting Jokic outside, pulling Portland’s centers away from the bucket, then trying to make a pass to the interior, was somewhat backwards. Taking Nurkic outside kept him from picking up fouls. Jokic holding the ball on the perimeter also made the job of Portland’s other defenders relatively easy. All they had to do was stay with cutters. As long as they didn’t let their man completely free, Jokic was limited to relatively ineffective passes around the perimeter.
If the Nuggets send Jokic inside, they’ll free up open jump shooters. If the Blazers send help, that happens automatically. Even if the Blazers don’t commit an extra man, if Denver can run an off-ball screen to free a target, Jokic can make decisive passes from the post for three points instead of standing at the arc trying to thread tricky passes into the lane for two. Plus he has all the angles of the court available to work with instead of half of them being cut off by the mass of bodies in front of him.
In order to counter the strategy, the Blazers are going to need to get better at one area that still eluded them, even in their masterful performance: moving feet on defense. Someone needs to tell Portland’s wings that “pace and space” doesn’t mean trudging back and forth across the same four feet of hardwood with a blank stare. The somewhat-immobile Blazers dodged a little bit of trouble in Game 1 when Michael Porter, Jr. missed basically all his three-pointers. That’s not likely to happen again.
Portland’s going to have to anticipate more inside-out action from the Nuggets, then move their feet to mess with—or at least feint at—Jokic while still recovering to the arc. They’ll need to be aggressive going both directions. If they come at Jokic half-speed (which is how many of Portland’s rotations go), he’s going to make them look stupid. They need to read and communicate when, and from where, they’re going to send help and how they’re going to cover their rears when they do.
This is going to fall on the shoulders of Norman Powell, CJ McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, and maybe Robert Covington. One wishes Derrick Jones, Jr. had been able to integrate better, because this kind of aggressive, floor-covering assignment would suit him well. Be that as it may, you should be able to watch those four middle-position players in Game 2, especially when Jokic gets in the middle of the floor. If they’re active, Portland’s probably going to do well enough to give themselves a chance at a second straight victory. If they’re standing around watching shots go up, Portland’s, “Turn Jokic into a Scorer” plan is likely to disintegrate, as he scores and his teammates loft shots right over the Blazers’ heads at the same time.
Game 2 tips at 7:00 PM, Pacific on Monday night.