Nikola Jokic certainly rose to the occasion in the Nuggets’ 90-86 win over the Spurs on Saturday night. The Serbian center poured in 21 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, three blocks and one steal at the Pepsi Center in Denver, registering just the 11th Game 7 triple-double in NBA history. Jokic is a potential first-team All-NBA center (battling Joel Embiid for the honor) and a fringe MVP candidate. He checked every box in his first playoff series, proving Denver’s 54-win regular-season campaign was no fluke.
We’ll hold a parade at Mile High for now. Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking down the riverwalk in San Antonio anytime soon. Manu Ginobili is no longer euro-stepping his way through the NBA. The Spurs shot 5-of-24 in the first quarter of Game 7. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan combined for 35 points on 13-of-37 shooting and Derrick White’s offensive explosion was limited to Game 3. San Antonio’s reliance on Rudy Gay was staggering. Denver was favored to take care of business at home in Game 7, even as a particularly vulnerable two seed. Winning in the first round is impressive. Advancing to the conference finals is a far more notable accomplishment.
So how does Denver match up with the Blazers? A stark contrast emerges in the backcourt compared to the bigs. The Nuggets face an uphill battle at the guard spots. Damian Lillard completely buried the Thunder in Round 1, including the coldest buzzer-beater in recent memory. Last year’s sweep at the hands of the Pelicans might as well be a decade ago. Dame is at the peak of his powers, launching from every conceivable angle. The flood of praise is well deserved.
Denver doesn’t have the personnel to bother Lillard, and Jamal Murray will get hidden defensively throughout the series. Gary Harris isn’t as imposing a defender as one would expect. Another 50-point effort for Lillard could be in store. C.J. McCollum has flown under the radar amid Dame mania, but don’t forget his game-tying bucket against Oklahoma City with 57 seconds remaining in Game 5. Jokic won’t intimidate his slithery floaters in the lane, and Paul Millsap is more of a ground-bound impediment. San Antonio failed to exploit Denver’s defensive shortcomings for much of the series. Expect Portland to take advantage.
Perhaps Murray can match Lillard in spurts and mitigate the mismatch. He went nuclear in Game 2 with 21 fourth-quarter points, saving Denver from an 0–2 hole as the series headed down to San Antonio. Yet, relying on the 22-year-old guard can be a tenuous bet. Murray disappeared for the first six quarters of the postseason, then went just 2-of-6 from the field in Game 3. Murray tends to take his Mamba mentality a touch too far, even despite icing the series with a critical one-legged floater on Saturday night. High volume from Murray could spell a disappointing exit.
Which brings us to Jokic. He proved his playoff chops in the first round, and could very well feast against Portland. Former teammate Jusuf Nurkic is out for the season and Enes Kanter could miss part of the series with a shoulder injury. The Blazers are thin up front, literally. Meyers Leonard isn’t sturdy enough for Jokic. The disparity is even more significant with Zach Collins at the five. Al-Farouq Aminu will battle with the best of them, but he’s still surrendering four inches. Even a banged-up Kanter will struggle, though his sheer size could lend a hand. Jokic has quite the favorable matchup ahead. He’ll need to take advantage against a Portland team led by its backcourt.
Any notion of Denver hosting a Finals game should be put on hold until the next decade. Houston and Golden State would be heavy favorites in the conference finals, well positioned to take advantage of Jokic’s defensive deficiencies. Yet, even advancing past Portland would represent one of the greatest moments in franchise history. The Nuggets have reached the conference finals just once in the last 30 years, peaking with Carmelo Anthony in a six-game loss to the Lakers in 2009. Jokic is Denver’s first All-Star in the post-Anthony era. He’s the unquestioned face of the franchise, a legitimate star, albeit an unlikely one. Jokic will have a chance to battle Lillard possession-by-possession in the second round. Expect him to rise to the occasion.