The Western Conference’s third-seeded Denver Nuggets and sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers meet in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. It is a rematch of a first-round series the Blazers won in 2019, 4-3.
More Yahoo Sports NBA first-round playoff previews:
How they got here
Nuggets star Nikola Jokic is hands down the MVP of the 2020-21 regular season. He averaged a 26-11-8 on 57/39/87 shooting splits as a lumbering 6-foot-11, 284-pound center. His remarkable performance led Denver to pull the trigger on a win-now deal for longtime miscast Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon.
The Nuggets won seven straight with Gordon in the lineup and looked to be bona fide contenders, if not on the short list of championship favorites. Then, starting point guard Jamal Murray tore his left ACL late in a mid-April game against the Golden State Warriors, and the wind should have been taken from Denver's sail.
Only, Jokic kept trucking, and up stepped Michael Porter Jr. The second-year forward fully realized his scoring prowess over the final month of the season, averaging 25.4 points on ridiculous 58/51/85 splits.
The additions of JaMychal Green, Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers and JaVale McGee helped shore up the depth lost by the departures of 2020 playoff contributors Jerami Grant, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig and Mason Plumlee, and the Nuggets actually improved to the third seed in the aftermath of Murray's injury.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers did what they always do, overcoming adversity to enter the playoffs as a sleeper threat. C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missed two months each with a fractured left foot and right wrist, respectively. It didn't matter, because Damian Lillard was phenomenal, averaging a 29-4-8 on 45/39/93 shooting splits.
As they always do, the Blazers tinkered around Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, forever trying to find the wing mix that can propel their core into true contention. The offseason acquisition of Robert Covington took aim at addressing Portland's defensive woes, and a midseason trade for Norman Powell packed more offensive punch. Enes Kanter also returned as protection against Nurkic's growing injury history at the center spot.
An April malaise nearly forced Portland into the play-in tournament, but the group finally coalesced over the final month of the season, winning 10 of their last 12 games and losing only a pair of back-to-backs. Their +12.9 net rating since late April easily tops the league, followed by No. 1 seeds in Philadelphia and Utah.
Head to head
Denver won the season series against Portland, 2-1.
However, only the narrow 106-105 Nuggets victory on April 21 reflected the rosters both teams will field in the first round. Denver's other win came with Murray against a Portland team missing both McCollum and Nurkic, and the Nuggets pulled their starters early in Sunday's regular-season finale loss to the Blazers.
Just for fun, the per-36 numbers for Jokic and Lillard in their three meetings:
Jokic: 34.8 points (52/27/93), 6.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists
Lillard: 24.0 points (44/37/100), 9.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds
What was thought to be a rock-solid closing lineup of Jokic, Murray, Porter, Gordon and Will Barton — a group that outscored opponents by 16.8 points per 100 possessions in their limited time together — now only has two locks in Jokic and Porter. Murray is out, Gordon has not gained full trust in the clutch from coach Mike Malone and Barton missed the final 13 games of the regular season with a hamstring strain.
Campazzo, Green, Rivers, Paul Millsap, Monte Morris and P.J. Dozier are all capable of filling in around Jokic and Porter to more mild success than Denver's dream lineup. Five-man units with Jokic and Porter but without Murray own a tamer +1.8 net rating in 1,649 non-garbage possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Portland Trail Blazers
So long as everyone is healthy, the Blazers should close games with Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Covington and Nurkic. That lineup is outscoring opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time. Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Jones Jr. are respective options for coach Terry Stotts to go heavy on offense or defense, but when the best five players on your roster fit from a lineup standpoint, stick with what works.
Matchup to watch
The Nuggets essentially handed Nurkic to the Blazers, even attaching a first-round pick in the package, in order to maximize Jokic's role. Obviously, it was the right decision to give Jokic the keys, but Nurkic is a wildly underrated player when healthy — certainly worth more than a Plumlee and a second-round pick — and he was sure to remind Denver of that when his Blazers kept Denver from playoff contention in 2017.
“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurkic told Ben Golliver, then of Sports Illustrated, referencing multiple trade requests from Denver during the 2016-17 season. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like [Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City]. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”
Now, Nurkic will once again be tasked with stopping an even better version of Jokic from taking the spotlight. In the four years the NBA has tracked their matchup since the trade, Jokic has amassed 93 points on 75 shots and 23 assists against 17 turnovers in a hair over 53 minutes across nine games directly opposite Nurkic. The Nuggets have averaged a whopping 144.9 points per 100 possessions in that span.
Nuggets in seven.
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