More than any of the other round two series, the Blazers' and Nuggets' matchup projects to be a true two-man battle in the race for the conference finals. Kawhi Leonard went for 35 on Monday and still lost to Philadelphia’s four-headed monster. Al Horford is as important as Kyrie Irving against Giannis and co., while the Rockets will need to lean on much more than James Harden in their bid to dethrone the Warriors. But there was no question as to who would swing Denver’s 121-113 win at the Pepsi Center on Monday night. That honor belonged to Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard.
Both players have favorable matchups in the second-round series. Jusuf Nurkic’s absence removes any true impediment to Nikola Jokic inside. Enes Kanter reverted back to his Can’t-Play-Kanter ways in Game 1, failing to contain The Joker in any meaningful way. Jokic bruised his way to 37 points and nine rebounds on Monday, asserting himself with authority down low. He sat back and allowed Murray to run the show for large portions of round one. Don’t expect such inconsistency against Portland.
Lillard wasn’t quite immortal at Mile High. He made just four of 12 triples, and didn’t unleash any 37-feet rainbows. He was still effective despite his struggles from beyond the arc, though. The All-NBA point guard ended the evening with 39 points and six assists, darting past Denver’s bigs at will. Jokic won’t be able to contain him on an island. Paul Millsap doesn’t provide enough intimidation inside. The magnificence of Lillard’s shooting against Oklahoma City is tough to replicate, yet he should still be able to dominate with a dip in efficiency.
A number of players will post solid scoring nights in this series. We could see a seven-game scoring bonanza, with both teams launching threes with impunity. Portland’s guards are small and Denver’s bigs are ground bound. C.J. McCollum will go for 30 in the series at least once. Ditto for Jamal Murray. A Seth Curry game could be in store at the Moda Center (RIP Rose Garden), and Denver’s trio of backcourt guards can spur a game-changing run in limited minutes. San Antonio was able to grind the Nuggets to a halt. The Blazers don’t possess the same defensive prowess.
Drawing significant conclusions from Denver’s Game 1 blitzing is a foolhardy task. Even an 0–2 hole heading back to Portland won’t spell doom for the Blazers. Denver went 34–7 at the Pepsi Center in 2018-19, while the Blazers went 32–9 in Portland. Such a high-scoring series should favor the home teams, with role players having an abundance of confidence in their home confines. Houston and Golden State is a heavyweight fight. The other West series is a track meet, with the edge firmly on who holds homecourt.
Perhaps an unlikely hero swings this series with an extended hot streak or clutch bucket late. But if Monday night was any indication, Nuggets-Blazers will be decided by a pair of dueling superstars. Jokic won the Game 1 battle. Lillard will get plenty of opportunities to win the war. A shootout awaits out West.