Portland and Denver are even in head-to-head games in postseason history. The Blazers won the first series head-to-head, 4-2, in the 1977 conference semi-finals. Denver won the 1986 round one series 3-1.
5-to-5 in games won. 1-to-1 in series won. Who takes the edge in this series? It will come down to a several factors, but the three following matchups are the most important.
Lillard vs. Murray
Against Oklahoma City, Damian Lillard owned the point guard battle with Russell Westbrook. Lillard averaged 33 points, 6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.4 steals in 39.8 minutes played per game over five games.
For Jamal Murray, he averaged fewer points (19), assists (4.1), rebounds (2.7) and steals (1.3) than Lillard in 32.9 minutes per game in seven against San Antonio.
However, Murray protected the ball better than Lillard. Murray committed 13 turnovers (1.9 per game) in seven games, while Dame turned the ball over 22 times (4.4 per game) over five games.
Portland’s success is not solely on Lillard, but the four-time All-Star will need to cut down on his turnovers.
Numbers can only define so much of this matchup. Lillard’s heart, determination and decision-making certainly pushed him above Westbrook in the OKC series.
However, Murray’s poise in his first career playoff series was impressive against San Antonio too.
Portland’s All-Star needs to continue his elite level of play.
Murray will kill his team if he tries to keep up with Lillard’s scoring, like Westbrook did for OKC. The Nuggets success hinges on a total team effort led by Nikola Jokic, not Murray.
Prediction: Lillard outplays Murray.
Blazers Frontcourt vs. Jokic
The Nuggets win the battle of the centers on paper. If Portland is going to win the series, they need to limit Jokic in any way they can.
In his first career playoff series, Jokic nearly averaged a triple-double, 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 9.1 assists. To top it off, Jokic also protected the ball with only 12 turnovers (1.7 per game) in seven games against San Antonio.
In three regular season games played against the Blazers, Jokic averaged 25.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8 assists a game. He also hit 62 percent of his shots and 38.5 percent from three.
The Blazers are obviously without Jusuf Nurkic, and they may have a limited Enes Kanter in the series against Denver. If Kanter can’t play his 29-plus minutes a game, the Blazers will have to rely more on Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins.
Leonard only played 51 total minutes in three regular season battles with Denver. Over half of those 51 minutes (26) came in the Nov. 30 loss to the Nuggets, where Leonard scored 11 points.
As for Zach Collins, he played 60 total minutes between all four games against the Nuggets. The Gonzaga product scored in each game, and his single game-high was Jan. 13 with 8 points in the Blazers 116-113 loss at Denver.
If Kanter is severely limited, it will be a long series for the Portland reserve centers. As much as I’ve focused on Leonard and Collins, Kanter’s status is not fully known.
He played three games, one with New York and two with Portland, against the Nuggets, where he averaged a double-double, 17.3 points and 10.7 rebounds.
Here’s the deal, Jokic is going to score. However, the Blazers can have a say in how easy those opportunities are for the Nuggets All-Star.
The other thing Portland can do is try to get Jokic in foul trouble. Against San Antonio, Jokic averaged 3.3 fouls per game. He had just one game with fewer than three fouls.
The Nuggets are obviously better with Jokic on the floor. So, whether he’s in foul trouble or just taking regular rest, Portland needs to take advantage of the Jokic-less minutes of games.
Prediction: Jokic will outplay the Blazers frontcourt.
Blazers Role Players vs. Nuggets Role Players
Evan Turner, Seth Curry, and Rodney Hood need to contribute more against Denver than they did against OKC. If Portland is going to win this series, the role players need to help Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The Blazers can rely on their stars, but Curry and Hood need to score more points. They only averaged 8.6 combined points in the series with OKC. Against Denver that will not get it done.
Portland needs Turner to keep the second unit on schedule with solid passing and aggressive rebounding.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless will have a lot of work to do on both ends of the floor. Especially if Kanter is limited, and they’ll need to help Collins and/or Leonard attempt to guard Jokic.
Denver has one star, Jokic, and a smattering of players who all do their job.
Both Gary Harris and Paul Millsap averaged more points against Portland compared to their season average. Harris scored 12.9 points on the year, but 17 per game vs. the Blazers. Millsap scored 12.6 points on the season, but he averaged 19.3 in games against Portland.
Murray scored 19 points and shot nearly 40 percent against the Blazers in the regular season.
Prediction: Portland’s role players will contribute more (positively) than Denver’s help.
If these three matchups go as predicted, Blazers win in six.
Give us your prediction for the series below!