The first round of the NBA Playoffs saw few surprises amidst the constant playoff action. For the conference semifinals, it went straight chalk, as the top-four seeds in both conferences moved on to the second round.
In the East, the Milwaukee Bucks will be looking to avenge their postseason exit to the Boston Celtics in an exciting rematch. For the other series, you have the revamped Toronto Raptors ready to overcome their playoff demons while taking on the Philadelphia 76ers.
In the West, the Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets rematch should also be one for the ages. MVPs James Harden, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant will duke it out in what should be another grueling seven-game series.
For this article though, I’ll be covering the intriguing Western Conference semifinal matchup of the Denver Nuggets vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. Two teams that weren’t excepted to be here at the start of the season, both Denver and Portland will be looking to maintain their momentum all the way into the Western Conference Finals.
Here’s a look at how each team got here, the matchup itself, and a prediction to boot:
The First Round
(2) Denver Nuggets
In the first round, the Nuggets had to go the distance to take care of the San Antonio Spurs. In a back-and-forth affair, the Nuggets squeezed out a four-point Game 7 victory at home. DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs gave the Nuggets all they could handle. Home-court advantage proved to be huge for Denver, as they won both Games 5 and 7 at home after splitting the first four games of the series.
All-star center Nikola Jokic dominated the series, nearly averaging a triple-double with 23 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists. His inside-out game proved crucial against the Spurs, who held up their own against the big man. It was the rest of Denver’s supporting cast that stepped up when they needed it.
Guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris provided just enough scoring and defense. Murray and Jokic both averaged 1.3 steals throughout the series, with Jamal also pouring in 19 points and 4 assists per game. Harris emerged as the go-to third-option, averaging almost 15 points a game. These young, athletic guards displayed their talents and proved that they can translate their games into the postseason.
The biggest x-factor in this series was Paul Millsap. The veteran forward was the only Nuggets starter that had any playoff experience. It was through his leadership and insight that Denver was able to prevail. He will have to play an even bigger role if the Nuggets want to advance past Portland.
(3) Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers shocked many, as they went on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers were able to overcome any deficiencies in the paint. Enes Kanter filled in as the starter and was a menace in the paint. He nabbed over 10 boards and over 13 points, providing Portland with a solid scoring option down-low.
The real winners for the Trail Blazers though were the usual suspects: Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The dynamic backcourt duo overmatched the Thunder’s duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George. McCollum was his usual productive-self, providing an invaluable stat-line of 24.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4 assists. While his performance was great, it was Dame who stole the show. He raked against the Thunder, averaging 33 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6 assists and 2.4 steals. Oh, and he also called game, match and series.
With Lillard’s exclamation point, the series ended in five. Aside from Lillard and McCollum, there were other valuable performances. Maurice Harkless helped navigate the forward position, averaging 11 points, 7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.6 blocks. Meanwhile, sixth-man Seth Curry‘s sharp-shooting continued, as he shot 55% from three. Overall, the Blazers are a balanced team that have plenty of role players that contribute. These players will have to continue to play well for Portland to win their next series.
Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers
This matchup will feature two distinct playing styles. On one hand, the Nuggets run their offense mainly through Jokic. While Murray and Harris will also play as primary ball-handlers, it is Nikola who runs the show. They can play at either an ultra-fast approach or they can slow it down and control the tempo of the game. The Nuggets rely on swift, steady ball-movement to create open shots for their perimeter players.
On the other hand, the Trail Blazers almost always play at a rapid, back-and-forth pace. They have two of the quickest guards in the league, and use this speed tot heir advantage. Unlike the Spurs, who rely on ball-movement and running sets, the Blazers are a run-and-gun squad that can space the floor. They quicken up the pace and will run plenty of pick-and-roll sets for their multiple big guys.
The different styles should make for an interesting chess-match between head coaches Mike Malone of the Nuggets and Terry Stotts of the Blazers. Expect to see a lot of Jokic-on-Kanter action as the Nuggets will look to exploit Enes’ subpar defense. For Stotts and the Blazers, there should be plenty of Lillard-McCollum action. Lillard is the undisputed closer and you can expect to see him taking control of the ball down the stretch of games.
Blazers in 7
In what should be yet another tough, competitive Western Conference series, I see the Trail Blazers coming out on top in seven even after losing Game 1.
Although the Nuggets have home-court again, I believe the Blazers’ talent and three-point shooting will overwhelm the Nuggets. Since they do play in two very distinct ways, Denver will have a shot at disrupting the quick-pace tempo that Portland often relies on. In the end, Portland has one of the hottest players in the world right now, and I expect Lillard to dominate once again. The more experienced team in the Trail Blazers will prevail.