Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury likely served as the end of the Nuggets’ Finals hopes ahead of the 2021 playoffs. But his absence from the lineup didn’t exactly decimate Denver’s attack through its first three playoff games.

The Nuggets closed the regular season 13–5 without Murray, sporting the NBA’s No. 8 offensive rating following his mid-April exit from the lineup. Nikola Jokić cruised to the top of the MVP ballots across the league while Michael Porter Jr. continued his ascent as a star in the making. A similar pattern has emerged in round 1. Porter combined for 43 points in the first two games, hitting a trio of threes as he finished with a plus-17 in a Game 2 win. Jokić continues to be masterly. Denver’s big man made 15 of 20 shots en route to a 38-point performance in Game 2, adding 36 points in Thursday’s 120–115 road win. Even if the Blazers’ defense is never going to be confused with the 2004 Pistons', Denver’s attack still looks as healthy as ever.

Jokić’s brilliance early in this series is a decidedly unsurprising event. He entered Thursday night averaging 25.4 points on 52/42/84 shooting splits in 35 career playoff games, with five postseason triple doubles under his belt. Jokić is perhaps the game’s most steady force, brilliantly dictating each possession with a metronome-like consistency. A first-round exit before Jokić is named MVP is looking increasingly unlikely after Game 3.

Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers (25) reacts after a three-point basket during the second half of game three in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers

Jokić’s dominance in the first round isn’t exactly surprising. The same can’t be said for the performance of his supporting cast. Denver is cobbling together quality minutes from an unexpected backcourt duo, with Austin Rivers and 30-year-old rookie Facu Campazzo putting up a valiant battle against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Rivers canned five threes in a 21-point performance on Thursday. Campazzo fell two rebounds and two assists short of a triple double. Both guards add a further dose of playmaking and pace to Denver’s attack, and considering Portland’s diminutive backcourt, they should continue to face little resistance as the defense collapses around Jokić.

Last year’s run to the Western Conference finals taught us a great deal about Murray in particular. Denver’s point guard was a dominant scorer in the first two rounds of the 2020 playoffs, posting a quartet of 40-point performances. The '20 playoffs served as validation of Murray as an elite sidekick. Perhaps these playoffs will entrench Porter as the finishing piece in a true Big Three.

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Portland’s defense manically worked to chase Porter off the line on Thursday night, (rightfully) scared of his smooth stroke as Denver pinged the ball around the perimeter. The Porter of last season would chuck away despite the defensive attention, but Game 3 featured a mature, controlled version of the Missouri product. Porter posted a team-best plus-14 in 33 minutes, hitting 3-of-5 triples as he finished with 15 points. Denver racked up the hockey assists with 20 threes on 38 attempts. Porter’s scoring prowess set the table for a number of the Nuggets’ open looks.

As we continue to learn about the talent on hand in Denver, is there much we can really say about Portland at this point? Perhaps we’re wasting our breath.

Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum (3) and point guard Damian Lillard (0) walk back to the court after a timeout during the second half of game three in the first round

The Blazers have been a playoff stalwart over the last decade, logging eight straight playoff appearances. Though unlike Denver, the idea of a run to the Finals either this year or in subsequent seasons seems increasingly far-fetched. This is still a disastrous defensive outfit, and there isn’t the requisite depth to keep up with the best squads in the West. Lillard remains one of the great scorers of his era and one of the greatest shooters ever. But his fireworks can only take a team so far. It’s not necessarily a criticism of Lillard to recognize his team is a paper tiger. Another first-round exit would only confirm the point.

This series is anything but over as the Nuggets hold a 2–1 lead. Lillard is due for at least one late-game eruption, and it’s hard to see Denver shooting the lights out on the road like it did on Thursday. But look through a larger lens, and it's hard not to see this series as a matchup of franchises moving in opposite directions.

The Blazers’ title window is closed—if it ever was open—and it’s unlikely they’ll be favored in any series for the rest of Lillard’s career. As for the Nuggets, their future is arguably as bright as any team in the Western Conference. Murray’s injury derailed this year’s Finals hopes. But the playoff reps for Jokić and Porter should pay dividends in 2021 and beyond. 

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