The Portland Trail Blazers are now officially in the NBA Playoffs while simultaneously avoiding the play-in game as they beat the Denver Nuggets in the season’s final game.
They can now breathe a sigh of relief as they have avoided the banana-skin that is the play-in game, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors set to play each other instead.
The Blazers get a massive five-day rest now, where they can prepare for a familiar foe in the Nuggets.
Which matchups will be key to deciding who wins this series?
Matchup #1 Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic
Though Damian Lillard and Jokic will go head to head in terms of performance as the two superstars on the team, it will be the Bosnian Nurkic who will have the task of guarding the likely MVP Jokic.
Nurkic, remember, was originally drafted by the Nuggets before being shipped off to the Blazers in a deal where the Nuggets ended up with Mason Plumlee.
He will also be having his first health playoff series since 2017/18. He did return in the Bubble last season, but had to play his way into fitness which was a tough ask. Nurkic also, interestingly, has a contract guarantee in the off-season where he can negotiate a new deal, or have the last year of his current deal guaranteed.
No doubt about it, this the biggest series of Nurkic’s career. If he can slow down Jokic while staying healthy and helping the Blazers make a first-round upset, he will shed the injury tag that’s hung over him the last little while.
For Jokic, we know how he can play in the playoffs. His individual stats in the playoffs the last two years have been huge, but, this year he doesn’t have running mate Jamal Murray. These playoffs will be Jokic’s biggest test in the playoffs.
Matchup-wise, he will have it very tough around the basket on both ends. Nurkic’s strength and extra bounce around the basket mean he will tire Jokic out on that end. Jokic stretching the floor will obviously pull Nurkic away from the rim though. Because he is such an important part of the Blazers’ poor defense, this significantly impacts them.
Jokic will need to play at a similar level to what we saw in the regular season, while also trying to avoid foul trouble on the other end when guarding Nurkic.