The Portland Trail Blazers looked amazing in Game 1 of their 2021 NBA Playoffs series against the Denver Nuggets. Taking control of the floor and a commanding lead in the fourth quarter, Portland streaked away to a 123-109 victory, building momentum and goodwill not just in the series, but across the league.
That all fell apart in Game 2. Despite 42 points and 10 assists from Damian Lillard, the Blazers got squashed by a Nuggets squad playing with aggression and determination. Portland lacked those qualities, plus a whole heap of technical execution. The whiplash from the 128-109 defeat doesn’t just have fans and pundits scratching their heads, but massaging the back of their necks and reaching for pain relievers.
It’s easy to explain the bad outing as lack of effort, though that brings up its own set of questions. Among them: “If you’re not going to go all-out in the playoffs, when, exactly, were you planning to?” It’s also fairly simple to say the Nuggets were ready for Portland. But the game isn’t just played in minds and hearts. Several technical and systemic things went wrong for the Blazers on Monday night. Let’s look at a few.
Jokic Down the Middle
If you’ve been reading our coverage for the last few days, you’ll recall that we said before the series even started that a big part of Denver’s success would depend on where Nikola Jokic operated. He thrives in the center of the floor, where he can put pressure on opposing defenses. The farther to the angles the Blazers make him play, the harder it’ll be for him to dominate.
On the surface, Jokic’s stats didn’t look that much different in Game 2 than in Game 1. Saturday night he scored 34 with 1 assist, Monday 38 with 5 assists. But the outings aren’t as similar as they appear.
In Game 1, Jokic shot 14-27 from the field. 12 of his 27 attempts, about 45%, came away from the center area of the floor.
In Game 2, Jokic shot 15-20. Only 4 attempts (25%) came outside of that center stripe. Draw an imaginary rectangle starting at the bottom of the key and extending outwards through the three-point arc. Jokic shot 14-16 within that area.
The damage wasn’t contained to The Joker’s point total. Jusuf Nurkic fouled out, in part because Jokic wore him out during the first three quarters of the game instead of the reverse. Denver also shot 12-28, 42.9% from distance in Game 2 as opposed to their 11-36, 30.6% showing in Game 1. With Jokic commanding attention in the center of the floor, Denver’s shooters weren’t just open, but comfortably so.
The difference was night and day as far as the overall effect on Portland’s defense. In Game 1, the Blazers had to defend a couple of possible angles radiating out from Jokic, as well as bothering his shot. They managed the angle part even though he scored plenty. In Game 2, the Blazers had to watch all directions and bend their defense towards Jokic just to keep him from scoring 100. That proved impossible. Not only did he hit often and easily, his teammates did too.
Denver’s willingness to dive into the lane in Game 2—and the resulting inside-out ball movement—put pressure on the Blazers to rotate. This is where Portland’s defense often falls apart. Last night was no exception.
The Blazers made multiple errors of omission. Among the most repeated were the failure of interior defenders to cover the rim when Denver’s penetration got past the first layer of defense and the failure of perimeter defenders to close out on three-point shooters. Both reached the level of negligence at some points.
The Blazers also made a couple errors of commission. They’re always going to play at a height disadvantage against Denver’s frontcourt, but they got switched into intolerable mismatches in the paint on more than one occasion. When they did send help, they sometimes did so indiscriminately. One man rotating to help in the lane provides an advantage. Triple-teaming doesn’t give that much additional coverage, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of turning every Nugget big into Nikola Jokic. Any reasonable pass will result in a wide-open look.
Portland’s offense produced a high percentage from the field in Game 2, but they had to work hard for those buckets.
Lillard looked amazing beyond the three-point arc last night, shooting 9-16. CJ McCollum shot 9-12 from the floor overall. But Jusuf Nurkic went 2-8 and Carmelo Anthony 1-5. The problem here isn’t the low percentage for those players, it’s the low number of shots. Nurk and ‘Melo are arguably the Blazers’ second and third scorers. They never got involved.
The high screen plays that the Blazers feasted on in Game 1 seemed to disappear in Game 2. Part of that was due to Denver’s coverage adjustments, but the Blazers also seemed to bail into iso ball pretty quickly. Portland passes came around the perimeter if they came at all.
This had two effects. Scoring came slower, as iso plays (ironically) take longer to develop than most of Portland’s screen sets. Second, Denver didn’t have to move their defense much. They didn’t get banged or fatigued. They barely had to think. Either Lillard’s shots were going in or they weren’t; there wasn’t much to do except pivot and rebound.
In Game 1, the Nuggets needed a fourth-quarter run but couldn’t summon it, as their perimeter jumpers kept falling short. They went 2-10 on shots beyond 20 feet in that period. In Game 2 they kept up the pressure in every way—driving, shooting, and on the break—all game long. When the fourth quarter came, they were 4-10 beyond 20 feet and still managed to shoot 50% inside that range.
Portland committed 20 turnovers in Game 2. That’s pretty much two games’ worth at their normal pace. The problem started early and never got solved. The Blazers don’t just score because they’re talented, but because they get more shots on goal than the opponent. Turnovers are a direct threat to their approach. They can’t afford that many.
Field Goal Attempts
That brings us to the final, and perhaps most decisive, flaw. The Blazers only put up 73 shots on goal in Game 2. They work best when they approach 100. 73 was 3⁄4 of what they wanted, nowhere near what they needed. By comparison, 91 field goal attempts per game is their season average, also their number in Game 1.
It’s safe to say that the Blazers will struggle in any game in which they get up only 73 shots. Even if 50% of them go in and 50% of those makes are threes, that amounts to 92 points. Add in their average of 18 free throws made per game and they’d have 110 points generated off of phenomenal shooting...about what they got on Monday. As we saw, given their defense and Denver’s scoring ability, that’s just not enough. Portland needs to play smoother, faster, and take better care of the ball if they want to succeed.
The contest between these two teams isn’t anywhere close to decided yet. Let’s see how the Blazers do in these aspects of the Game on Thursday night. If they can shore up a couple—even if it’s just pushing Jokic around a bit and getting more shots up—they should have a chance. If they repeat their Game 2 flaws, though, it’s going to be hard to win even one more, let alone the series.