Okay, that was a painful way to start a playoff series.
The energy in the building was electric, the Denver Nuggets played well with the fans, but they just didn’t have enough to match the shooting prowess of the Portland Trail Blazers in tonight’s 123-109 loss. There are good signs Denver moving forward in this series, but giving up Game 1 is never good. The Nuggets will need to fix things quickly.
Here are my five takeaways from Game 1:
Nikola Jokić will have to be the best player in this series to win it
It was a very impressive goal night for Nikola Jokić as he went for 34 points and 16 rebounds from 14 from 27 from the field. His shot quality was pretty low and he had to settle for a few tough looks, but he made several. At one point he had 22 out of 9 out of 16 points from the field before halftime. He had just 12 points in the second half, and the Nuggets felt significantly different offensively because of that.
Damian Lillard is going to take his photos, and he has the space around him to maximize those possessions. Jokić doesn’t have that luxury, but he will have to fight to win this series. The Blazers will push, slap, scratch and amass as many borderline fouls as they can get against him. Just four attempted free throws won’t be enough, and Jokić will have to do a foul chase if he is to keep pace with the Blazers stars.
Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons made the difference
When Carmelo Anthony was announced at Ball Arena, Nuggets fans booed him relentlessly for obvious reasons, and Melo made them pay for it. 18 points on 12 shots and some good defensive play helped turn the tide for the Blazers after Lillard and CJ McCollum were initially ineffective.
If it was just Melo it would have been nice, but the Blazers also got 14 points on 6 shots from Anfernee Simons. His shots were mostly wide open, and he made the Nuggets pay almost every time. These were the killers for Denver, because if you expect the stars to strike with open eyes, reserves and role players are just as deadly, it’s just painful.
Can Denver even get those shooters back with the attention they give Dame and CJ? Will the Blazers continue to shoot such a high percentage of three? Both questions are legitimate.
Damian Lillard was initially a distributor before chasing his clichés
The Nuggets have shown two defensemen on Dame almost every time in the pick and roll. With Jokić there, that’s what the Nuggets chose to do. Sometimes Dame got the corner on Jokić’s hurdle, but most of the time he was handing passes to other Blazers for open shots they hit almost every time.
At one point during the third quarter, Dame stopped passing so often and instead chased her own punches through mismatches. He spent time with Michael Porter Jr. and was mostly successful. He also went to the post against Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo in an attempt to put these guys in trouble.
Ultimately, Lillard finished with 34 points and 13 assists. He’s getting so much attention but has improved too much as a passer for the Nuggets to sell themselves to help him. He was probably the best player tonight, and the Nuggets have to change that.
Michael Porter Jr. is THAT guy, but he has to hit his threes too
It was an interesting start for Michael Porter Jr. as the second option in the Nuggets offense tonight. There were moments of greatness and questionable shots, but the young striker ultimately generated 25 points out of 21 shooting possessions. He was 11 of 11 on two points, dominating inside and hitting some really incredible shots. Superstar shots.
The wrong side? 1 in 10 from a three point range is not going to cut it. It must be better from a distance. Much better. Many of the shots he attempted were simply misfires on the normal contested shots he takes. Some of the shots were more questionable, but that’s the price of entry to have a deadeye shooter. He can do the toughest.
The Nuggets need to find ways to create space for their top outside shooter. Making him three folds the defense in an impossible way, which will open up opportunities for the rest of the squad. If he hits those shots, the Nuggets have a chance. If they are missing, the nuggets are cooked.
It’s a game, but the three-dot line will be the barometer
The Nuggets have hit 11 threes tonight on 36 attempts, a 30.6% mark that doesn’t inspire much confidence going forward. Porter can certainly turn things around after a night of 1 in 10, but the bench combining to go 2 of 7 collectively and Austin Rivers with a performance of 1 in 5 doesn’t make it easy to predict regression.
The Blazers, on the other hand, shot 19 of 40 from a three-point distance tonight, which is good for 47.5%. A lot of those shots were tough looks that the Blazers had just done, but just as many were easy shots generated after several defensive rotations of the Nuggets. The Blazers worked the ball, found the shooter open, and converted consistently.
The Nuggets aren’t going to stop those shots altogether, but they need to limit those stares. If Denver hits 15 outside shots and Portland hits 15 outside shots, that shifts the margin by 24 points in Denver’s favor. They don’t need that many shots to stand a chance in this series, but they need the Blazers not to shoot 47.5% every game. It would help greatly.
It’s a game. It’s tough for Denver to go back 1-0 in this series at the start, but they weathered the worst. This series was always going to go further, and the Nuggets have to work hard to reduce the margins. Let’s see what they can do in Game 2.