The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets played a spirited first game of their 2021 NBA Playoff series. Despite Portland’s best defensive efforts, Denver MVP contender Nikola Jokic scored 34 points in 36 minutes, defining himself as the best center of this generation. But Jokic had an unusually weak pass, being part of Portland’s game plan to make him work hard and alone for his contributions. The Blazers, meanwhile, had no such problem. Portland’s own superstar Damian Lillard drove and struck three with abandon, forcing Denver to hit him. As soon as they did, he whipped the ball to open the shooters, most of whom responded with threes. The Blazers ended up shooting 19-40, 47.5% from distance. Their fast, heavy jumpers attack was too much for Denver to handle, scoring a 123-109 victory, placing Portland 1-0 in the top 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, saving his current squad at the expense of his old one by 18 points. Jusuf Nurkic had a brilliant game with 16 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and lots of good defense.
The Nuggets released their first game in search of Nikola Jokic. He missed a drive on the left side of the floor. But after that, they played the mismatch advantage card, passing forward Aaron Gordon in the race and in the half court. Gordon scored and passed Denver from a lightning-fast start. When Michael Porter, Jr. also dropped out of a couple, Terry Stotts called a “let’s stop this” timeout. The score was 17-11, Denver. It was 6:09 a.m. At that point, Damian Lillard took over, leading the way out 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 arrived and, ironically, the defense improved. Jokic scored big, but his points came slowly, in isolation with a lot of effort. Meanwhile, Lillard’s driving started paying dividends, as Denver fell back into the paint to stop him, Lillard punched Carmelo Anthony for a pair of open threes to tie the game at 26. Then Anfernee Simons hit and the Blazers were up three despite all the Jokics. rating. When Anthony knocked out two more sweaters, he was so hot Paris Hilton had to find another word for him. By this time, Portland was officially on the run. Anthony and the bench team saved the Portland bacon this quarter. Melo had 12 points in 5 minutes of play and Portland was leading 35-30 after one.
The Blazers continued to play pretty smart early in the second period. They installed screens in attack, packed the way in defense. CJ McCollum became the main man on the floor, but neither his defense nor his attack lived up to the standards of the first quarter. Fortunately, Carmelo Anthony struck again, which kept the floor pretty wide. Portland needed it. As the minutes passed, it became apparent that a McCollum-Kanter-Simons-Anthony combination wouldn’t be able to stop the Nuggets anywhere.
Jokic and Lillard came back around 7:00 am and traded three. Denver continued to pressure the Blazers with drives inside, however, thanks to permissive Portland guards. This led to Terry Stotts calling yet another time out, “Let’s stop it” because apparently, even in the playoffs, the Blazers can’t remember defending for more than five minutes.
At that point, Lillard took over command. The Blazers installed smart screens, forcing Jokic to change the mismatch, which Lillard scored. But Denver still took the lead with heavy offensive rebounds. Portland would have benefited from a few whistles on their records, but they didn’t seem to get any. It was a shame, because they made Denver go on tall screens almost every room. It was what it was.
When the smoke cleared, Denver was leading 61-58 at the half. Lillard had 14 in intermission, Jokic 22. The Denver center had no help, however, which was an indication that something was going well for Portland.
Portland came out in the third defense game bad enough to get passengers to reach for their barf bags. Facundo Campazzo started to tear them apart, as they simply refused to budge after making an initial defensive engagement. One pass and Denver got all the shots they wanted.
The Blazers have solved this as they always do: Lillard and McCollum score, usually from a distance. What the heck, it worked. When Lillard hit a three deep and straight away with 6:54 to go to get Portland out of a deficit, he tied the score at 73. That turned out to be the centerpiece of a 15- run. 4 who carried the Blazers throughout the quarter.
Nurkic has committed three fouls at this point, but Jokic has made no move to lead him, showing that the Blazers aren’t the only team making some curious decisions. Nurkic, in fact, did an amazing job keeping Jokic on the sides of the pitch instead of letting him operate in the middle. He was the bright spot for Portland on the defensive side.
Still, Jokic got his points (but no assists) so the Nuggets weren’t going to leave, run or no run. Denver continued to force their way inside past defenders who couldn’t stop them, leaving Nurkic whaling and waving at the edge. It is a miracle that he did not notice 92 faults.
When Nurkic sat down, Kanter was not so quick to help and stop. Denver scored even easier. But here is Dame, hitting jumpers and free throws with equal ease. Once again, when the Denver defense hit him, Dame found open shooters. He capped the period with a “Only Dame Could Do This” three, proving to be as big of a thorn on the Denver side as Jokic was in Portland. The Blazers led 96-86 after three,
Portland put on the pressure early in the fourth. Anfernee Simons and CJ McCollum each hit a three, which forced Nuggets head coach Michael Malone to call his own, “Let’s stop this.” Revenge was sweet.
Unfortunately, it was also short-lived. The Nuggets are out of this scouting and driving downtime. They turned the situation around in Portland, ramping up the offense and forcing the Blazers to overengage on defense, giving up layups or open jumpers.
But no matter how many shots the Nuggets hit, they just weren’t three. McCollum hit a layup, then Simons connected AGAIN from the back, 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 mid-quarter minutes. Campazzo had a brave play, stealing the ball from Lillard in an iso play essentially pushing it into Dame’s face. Lillard returned the favor a few plays later by hitting one, “In YOUR Face” three with barely a burst of daylight on a Nurkic screen. That, with a conventional three-point play from Melo on a brilliant pass from Nurkic, pushed the lead back to 10. Then Nurkic converted his and the score was 116-103 with 3:40 to go. When he struck again with his own offensive rebound on the next possession, Portland led by 15 and even the Nuggets’ most loyal supporters began to doubt their ability to come back.
They couldn’t either. Jokic led another short run, but McCollum found Robert Covington open on the right side in the arc with 1:20 to go. When his triple splashed, Portland led 121-107 and the dagger was nailed to the coffin.
Stay tuned for Steve Dewald’s in-depth analysis of the upcoming first game.
The score of the box
Game 2 is scheduled for Monday evening at 7:00 p.m. Pacific on TNT.