Portland Trail Blazers: Takeaways from season finale against the Denver Nuggets

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

Another regular season in the Damian Lillard-era comes to a close and while the Portland Trail Blazers have been a hopeful, mid-tier playoff team before, something feels different this year. The roster looks different as newcomers Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Derrick Jones Jr. prepare to suit up for their first postseason in Blazers red.

While it wasn’t exactly a good look having to play until the final buzzer of the regular season to avoid the play-in tournament, Portland seems to be hitting their stride at the exact right time.

The Blazers took care of business against the Denver Nuggets, bringing the season series to 2-1 and clinching the sixth seed in the process. With their win, they also punched a ticket for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers to head to the play-in tournament, a cherry on top that may be even sweeter than the meal itself.

The Los Angeles Clippers were able to out-tank the Oklahoma City Thunder, successfully dodging LeBron’s side of the bracket. That is unless the Lakers lose their first play-in game before pulling out a do-or-die match for the eighth seed. With their loss, the Clippers remained in the fourth slot, making tonight’s game not only a playoff clincher for Portland but also a rehearsal for the first-round.

Here’s what we can expect to see in the series based on what we saw from the Blazers tonight.

The Blazers guards should feast on Denver’s shorthanded backcourt

The Blazers have arguably the best backcourt in the NBA. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are dangerous, versatile, and have amazing chemistry with six seasons manning the guard spots side-by-side. This dynamic duo is sure to be a problem for any team in the league, but especially the Denver Nuggets.

After trading away Gary Harris to the Magic and losing Jamal Murray for the season to a torn ACL, the Nuggets guard rotation is questionable to say the least. Since losing Murray, Denver has been relying on Facundo Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Monte Morris, and PJ Dozier to fill their guard minutes. The only plus defender of the bunch is PJ Dozier who will be returning from a right adductor strain if he returns for the first-round.

The shakiness in the Denver backcourt gives Portland a clear advantage. After all, the superstar backcourt combined for 46 points on a cool 53 percent shooting in the regular-season finale. Whenever Dame and CJ get cooking, it’s a pretty good recipe for a Blazers win. With Murray out, they can focus solely on annihilating the Nuggets defense.

Portland should force Nikola Jokic to be a scorer

Nikola Jokic is one of the most versatile centers in NBA history. He has in his offensive bag: a post-game, the mid-range, a 3-point shot, and arguably his most dangerous asset, his playmaking vision.

With his ability to score on all three levels, Jokic is bound to get his buckets. However, the Nuggets truly unlock their offensive potential when the Joker can get his teammates going.

According to statmuse, the Nuggets are a ridiculous 129-47 when Jokic records over six assists. When he picks up less than six dimes, Denver has a sub-par record of 107-125.

In the 21 games the Joker has faced Portland so far in his career, he’s averaged 18.3 points and 5.5 assists per contest. The Blazers should stay home defending Jokic’s teammates and force him to go one-on-one against Nurkic as often as they can.

That will force the Joker to play more of a primary scorer role than playmaker, a step out of his comfort zone. It will also require him to expend more energy and lose a step on defense where he’s turned into a pretty reliable interior defender.

Nurkic seems more than up to the challenge. In nine career head-to-head matchups, Nurk has averaged 17.6 points and 9.4 boards while holding Jokic to 18.8 points and 7.3 assists a game.

In tonight’s matchup, a 16 point Nuggets loss, Jokic scored 21 but only picked up 2 dimes. The Bosnian Beast can more than hold his own; the Blazers should focus on lowering that assist average to prevent Denver’s offense from rolling.

Michael Porter Jr. could be a problem for the Portland Trailblazers

Michael Porter Jr. is a superstar in the making. He’s 6’10, handles like a guard, and can shoot the lights out. In the 20 games prior to the season finale, MPJ averaged 23.8 points shooting 55 percent from the field and 43 percent from deep.

The second-year forward has seamlessly filled in as second fiddle to Jokic following Murray’s ACL tear. There’s no doubt that Denver is going to have one of the most potent offenses in the league next year once Murray returns.

Between Dame, CJ, and Norman Powell, the Blazers roll out a starting line-up with three players standing under 6’5. MPJ’s size and range could create all sorts of havoc for Portland’s smaller defenders.

RoCo is the only Portland starter with the size and mobility to contain Denver’s rising star. But with new addition Aaron Gordon suiting up at the four-spot, the Blazers may be forced to give Derrick Jones Jr. more run to slow down MPJ.

Michael Porter Jr. is bound to have a breakout playoff series. Here’s hoping that the Blazers don’t become a footnote in MPJ’s basketball-reference page.

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