Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets – Game 6 Preview

May 10, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) scores a basket during the second half against Houston Rockets forward Anthony Lamb (33) at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won the game 140-129. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
May 10, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) scores a basket during the second half against Houston Rockets forward Anthony Lamb (33) at Moda Center. The Trail Blazers won the game 140-129. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports /

With the Portland Trail Blazers facing elimination at the hands of Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets tonight, how will the team respond?

After a gutting double-overtime loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5, the Portland Trail Blazers find themselves staring down the barrel of a first-round playoff exit for the fourth time in five years. The implications of tonight’s game are massive. Portland made a concerted effort to go all-in on competing for a championship this season, and a first-round exit to a Nuggets team missing two starters (including their second-best player, Jamal Murray) is not an acceptable outcome for anybody in the Blazers organization.

Head Coach Terry Stotts is under the most pressure. After a disastrous stretch in April that saw the team pick up just three wins in 13 games, it was reported that the organization would likely be making a change to their coaching staff this off-season “if [Terry] Stotts can’t ‘pull a rabbit out of his hat’ with a playoff miracle of sorts” with Blazer’s chairwoman, Jodie Allen, becoming “increasingly focused” on the team’s future as Damian Lillard turned 30 this past summer (per The Athletic).

Before the playoffs began, Lillard was asked about his desire to win a championship for Portland (per The Athletic):

"“Like, I can’t express my desire and how bad I want to win it,” Lillard said. “I want that more than anything. Not just to say I won a championship. But I want to do it in this city. I want to have a parade on Broadway and ride past El Gaucho (steakhouse). That’s what I think of. Every time the playoffs is starting, I’m going into it like, ‘Is this going to be the year that we shock the world or that we come up big?”"

A loss tonight, at home, would be an unfortunate way for Stotts’ to close out his coaching run in Portland – his 402 regular-season wins rank as the second-most in franchise history – but after amassing just four playoff series victories in his previous eight years as head coach, it’s hard to argue that this team couldn’t benefit from a fresh voice in the locker room. However, we’ll save the eulogy for after the Blazers lose the series.

This Blazers team has proven to be extremely resilient, and all season long, they have found a way to elevate their play when it matters the most. The exploits of Damian Lillard in crunch time (excuse me, “Dame Time”) have been well documented. After that disastrous April that had fans and media members clamoring for Stotts’ dismissal, the team turned it around with a 7-2 record in May to end the season in order to avoid the play-in tournament (and save Twitter user, @LordTreeSap’s house).

Stotts was named Western Conference Coach of the Month after the team posted the #1 offense and #3 net rating during that stretch to close out the regular season. Heck, we even saw the team’s resiliency in Game 4, when the Blazers faced a 2-1 series deficit and came out swinging, never letting the Nuggets get a foothold in the game en route to a resounding 115-95 victory. If you know anything about this team, you know that this team will bring it until the buzzer sounds tonight. They are by no means ready to go home.

Below are two important factors that I will be focusing on during tonight’s game:

Nurkić Foul Trouble: Through the first 5 games of the series, Portland is a +54 in the minutes Nurkić has been on the court as he completely transforms the team’s defense when he plays (the Blazers defense has allowed an incredulous 37 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor per cleaningtheglass.com).

The problem for Nurk has been staying on the floor – he’s fouled out in three of the last four games of the series (the Blazers’ lost all three of those games). Nurkić truly plays with his heart on his sleeve and has given this matchup with Nikola Jokic everything he has – he has to be smarter in understanding the bigger picture effects of his actions. He can’t afford to pick up silly fouls chasing low-probability loose-balls and blocks, especially if he picks up an early foul. Keeping Nurkić on the floor and out of foul trouble will be vital to the Blazers’ success tonight.

Attacking the Paint: The Denver Nuggets gave up the highest opponent field goal percentage at the rim this season (68% per cleaningtheglass), and Portland has not done enough to make Denver pay for their lack of rim protection consistently. Too often, the Blazers have bailed the Nuggets out on defense by taking contested threes and long jump-shots very early in the shot-clock, and with minimal ball movement leading up to the shot.

In Game 6, I’d like to see the Blazer’s guards make Denver work a little more on defense by driving into the paint early and often forcing the defense to collapse and scramble more. It may sound simple, but more ball movement will lead to more open threes for the offense later as the game goes on and Denver’s defense tires. It will also allow the Blazers’ key defensive players’ like Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkić a bit more time to catch their breath before putting in another lung-busting shift on the defensive end.

Game 6 tips off at 8 pm EST on TNT.

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