The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets have played three times this season. The Blazers routed Denver 135-110 on Oct. 24 and the Nuggets won the next two: a 121-120 victory on a Jamal Murray buzzer-beater and a 120-107 win in the Mile High City.
Heading into their fourth and final matchup of the year, the Nuggets sit tied atop the Western Conference standings with the Memphis Grizzlies, 4.5 games clear of the third-place New Orleans Pelicans.
Coming away with a road win to split the season series won’t be easy for the Blazers. But Portland found a recipe for beating the Nuggets and, unsurprisingly, it starts with containing a two-time MVP.
The Portland Trail Blazers got Nikola Jokic in early foul trouble and routed the Nuggets
Portland’s win could be played off as a fluke – an early-season contest in which Jokic simply had an uncharacteristically poor performance.
But digging deeper into the box score of the Blazers’ October win shows it was not an accident that Portland came away with a 25-point win.
The Nuggets go as Jokic goes. And on that night, Jokic did not go.
The Joker, coming off consecutive triple-doubles, finished the game with just nine points. (To be fair, he did have nine rebounds and nine assists). Part of the reason he was kept in check and the Nuggets finished seven points below their season scoring average? Jokic got into early foul trouble and played only 27 minutes.
For comparison, Bruce Brown played 24 minutes that night.
Other factors played into the win, of course, including Anfernee Simons’ 29-point outburst that included seven 3-pointers. But it’s no coincidence Jusuf Nurkic also had a 13-point, 12-rebound double-double while Jokic was plagued by fouls and Portland made 23 free throws while Denver attempted a total of 14.
In the two teams’ second game on Dec. 8, Denver needed a three from Murray with 0.9 seconds left to eke out a one-point win. The Jokic-Nurkic plotline ran throughout the night again, except this time it was reversed.
Jokic reverted to his usual MVP self, finishing with 33 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. He picked up just one foul.
Nurkic, meanwhile, had another solid performance, at least statistically, with 21 points and nine rebounds, but this time it was the Blazers’ center who was in foul trouble for most of the evening.
The free-throw disparity was reversed as well. Despite only shooting 68 percent, the Nuggets made 15 free throws while the Blazers only attempted 16. Differences like that can quickly flip a win into a one-point loss.
The third matchup of the season took place just before Christmas and Jokic again was fantastic, scoring 29 points and adding eight rebounds and 11 assists. Nurkic struggled, fouling out in only 21 minutes. Portland’s big man finished with 11 points on just 4 of 10 shooting.
There’s a common thread here. The Blazers won when they aggressively went after Jokic, got him in foul trouble, and limited his minutes and impact on the floor. The Nuggets won when they did the same thing to Nurkic. It’s no coincidence free throws were a deciding factor.
Obviously, big men with foul trouble and total free-throw attempts don’t make or break games; they’re only part of the equation. But in Portland’s win against one of the NBA’s title favorites, it was a large part.
This is a common strategy teams use to stop Jokic. He’s just so great that most of the time it doesn’t work. But a lot of teams don’t have a center like Nurk, either – an old-school five who’s big and skilled with his back to the basket and has the desire to impose himself physically.
Neither team wants to get out and run – both teams are near the bottom of the NBA in terms of pace. The game will be won or lost in the half court.
If Nurkic can get in a groove early, Portland can feed the post and attack the paint and hope Jokic picks up a quick two or three fouls. That would also lead to an advantage at the free-throw line, where the Blazers shoot 78 percent, and it should give Damian Lillard, Simons, and Jerami Grant some uncontested looks from outside.
The Blazers showed this blueprint works when they executed it to the tune of a 25-point win in October. A repeat performance would go a long way toward proving this team has turned a corner in its season.