A rematch of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals.
In the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the No. 3 seeded Denver Nuggets will face the No. 6 seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
It's a showdown between two of the best offences in the NBA, as well as two of the league's best players in Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard.
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- Game 1 - TBD
- Game 2 - TBD
- Game 3 - TBD
- Game 4 - TBD
- Game 5 (if necessary) - TBD
- Game 6 (if necessary) - TBD
- Game 7 (if necessary) - TBD
Result: Nuggets won 2-1
Best game: Feb. 23, 2021 - Nuggets 111, Trail Blazers 106
Best performance: Nikola Jokic (Feb. 23, 2021) - 41 points (17-32 FG), five rebounds, five assists
The first meeting between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers this season was a thriller.
Jokic stole the show with a game-high 41 points, but it was Jamal Murray who helped put the Nuggets over the top. Tied at 78 entering the fourth quarter, Murray scored 19 of his 24 points in the final frame to help the Nuggets take the lead and come away with the 111-106 win.
Murray shot 6-for-10 from the field, 3-for-4 from 3-point range and 4-for-4 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.
🎂 24 for @BeMore27 on his 24th bday- NBA (@NBA) February 24, 2021
🎂 19 in the 4th Q to lift the @nuggets
Jamal Murray celebrates his #NBABDAY with a Jamal Murray-like performance! pic.twitter.com/q9F4v3Wlm2
The second meeting was even closer.
Coming off of a double overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Jokic powered the Nuggets to a 106-105 win over the Blazers with 25 points, nine rebounds, five assists and one block. He showed up when the Nuggets needed him the most, sinking three free throws in the closing seconds to give them the lead.
Without Murray, Michael Porter Jr. provided a spark for the Nuggets. He was Denver's second-leading scorer in the game with 17 points, all of which came in the first quarter.
Lillard led the Blazers in scoring with 22 points, but he shot 9-for-23 from the field and 2-for-10 from 3-point range.
MICHAEL PORTER JR vs BLAZERS- Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) April 22, 2021
1st quarter: 17 PTS (8/8 FG)
2nd-4th: 0 PTS (0/4 FG)
Nuggets still wonpic.twitter.com/P8BWpIGLGV
The final meeting came on the last day of the regular season.
Needing a win to secure the No. 6 seed and avoid the Play-In Tournament, Lillard set the tone for the Blazers with 22 points and 10 assists, his 16th double-double of the season. CJ McCollum added 24 points while Jusuf Nurkic posted a 20-point, 13-rebound double-double.
Jokic played only 16 minutes in the loss, scoring 21 points.
That's that Dame range pic.twitter.com/6xHb4QXk8r- Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) May 17, 2021
Key Storyline: Can the Nuggets get it done without Jamal Murray?
What a rollercoaster of a season it's been for the Nuggets.
Coming off of a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets came out of the gates slow but started to find their stride around All-Star Weekend, winning 17 of 20 at one point to move up from eighth in the Western Conference standings to fourth. The Nuggets then lost Murray to a season-ending injury on April 12, which many thought would be the beginning of the end for them.
Only it wasn't.
The Nuggets went 13-5 after Murray's injury, earning them the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Jokic strengthened his MVP case during that stretch while Porter Jr. put his star potential on full display, boosting his scoring average to 23.5 points per game on .560/.489/.854 shooting splits.
There was one period where Porter Jr. scored 20-plus points in six straight games, including a career-best 39 points in a win over the Houston Rockets.
A CAREER-HIGH 39 PTS for Michael Porter Jr!!! #MileHighBasketball- NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) April 25, 2021
57.2 FPTS pic.twitter.com/gj6BtQkJEm
While the Nuggets have been able to keep their head above water without Murray, the playoffs are where they need his shot-making the most. Look no further than what he did in the 2020 NBA Playoffs to understand how much he means to this Nuggets team.
In Denver's first-round series with the Utah Jazz, Murray exploded for 50 points not once, but twice. In its second-round series with the LA Clippers, he scored 40 points in Game 7 to complete another 3-1 comeback and punch its ticket to the Western Conference Finals. And while the Nuggets came up short against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, Murray stepped up with averages of 25.9 points and 7.4 assists per game.
The Nuggets still have the firepower to make some noise this postseason, but they'll be tested out of the gates against a battled-tested Blazers team that is hungry to prove themselves.
Three Players to Watch
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
The front-runner for MVP this season.
The Nuggets will need more than Jokic to defeat the Trail Blazers, but the loss of Murray puts even more pressure on the big man to continue playing at an MVP level.
The good news for Denver: Jokic played well against the Blazers during the regular season. Over three games, he averaged 29.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 52.2 percent shooting from the field.
Additionally, Jokic has shown out in the postseason in the past. The only other players in NBA history with career averages of 24.0 points and 10.0 rebounds on 50.0 percent shooting from the field are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Anthony Davis.
The Blazers are well aware of what Jokic is capable of doing under the bright lights of the playoffs.
Nikola Jokic (33 PTS, 18 REB, 14 AST) records the 4th most minutes (65) for a single game in #NBAPlayoffs history in the DEN/POR 4OT thriller! #MileHighBasketball- NBA (@NBA) May 4, 2019
Game 4: Sunday (5/5), 7pm/et, TNT pic.twitter.com/zHXCOpHMC3
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard has long been known for his late-game exploits, but he was ridiculous by even his standards in the clutch this season.
According to NBA.com, Lillard led the league with a total of 162 points in the clutch, defined as the last five minutes of a five-point game. He was incredibly efficient, shooting 51.1 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from 3-point range and 94.7 percent from the free throw line.
He hit big shot...
...after big shot...
...after big shot.
(You think he likes step backs?)
Lillard helped the Blazers win 24 of their 37 games that went down to the wire. The only teams with more clutch wins? The Brooklyn Nets (27), Philadelphia 76ers (25) and Phoenix Suns (25). Their success late in games is a big reason why they were able to survive when McCollum and Nurkic were out with injuries and why they find themselves in the No. 6 seed, not in the Play-In Tournament.
Lillard is not the person you want to see if things get close.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
Porter Jr. is perhaps best suited to fill the void left by Murray.
As already mentioned, Porter Jr. closed the season strong with an average of 23.5 points over his last 17 games. He was Denver's second-leading scorer during that stretch, trailing only Jokic (26.9).
The Trail Blazers have a few players they can throw at Porter Jr. in Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr. and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but his size and length make him a tough cover for even the league's best defenders.
Complicating matters further is Porter Jr. and Jokic have great chemistry. According to PBP Stats, Jokic assisted Porter Jr. 136 times during the regular season. The only duos with more assists were Russell Westbrook to Bradley Beal (139), Trae Young to John Collins (141), Chris Paul to Deandre Ayton (143) and Draymond Green to Stephen Curry (194).
Picks and Predictions
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Nuggets in seven
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Blazers in seven
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Nuggets in six
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): Blazers in seven
Kane Pitman (@KanePitman): Nuggets in six
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