For the first time since the 2008-09 season, the Denver Nuggets are playing beyond the first round of the postseason. Portland has played in the semifinals twice in the past five years, winning only two games. The two-seed Denver Nuggets will face off against the rested three-seed Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, with a chance to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Postseason expectations for both teams were relatively low. Portland drew what appeared to be a tough matchup with Oklahoma City. The young Nuggets, who missed the playoffs last season, were a popular pick to be upset by the Spurs last series with their postseason inexperience and “regular season team” aura. Never mind that the naysayers were almost correct when San Antonio took a 3-2 series lead. Both teams survived, impressively. However, Denver has a new problem they will need to contend with in the 2019 NBA playoffs: Damian Lillard.
Dame Time, Basically All the Time
Portland dispatched of the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games last round and did it in extraordinary fashion. Damian Lillard eliminated the Thunder by hitting a long (and by long, a 37-foot) 3-pointer at the buzzer right over Paul George. Ridiculous:
DAMIAN LILLARD JUST WON THE SERIES ON A RIDICULOUS GAME-WINNING BUZZER-BEATER pic.twitter.com/TWHdPltaFA
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) April 24, 2019
Whether the Thunder lost the series or Portland stole it is another conversation. The Blazers are riding a confidence wave and Lillard is elevating himself to another level. He averaged 33 points per game in the last series and shot 46% from the floor, including an ungodly 48% from behind the arc. He also dished six dimes and added more than two steals. His ability to take over games and make his teammates better is something incalculable.
Even after losing their second best player this season in Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers continued rolling. Enes Kanter averaged 13 points and ten rebounds in the first round in Nurkic’s stead. Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless provided good production, with the former shooting over 40% from beyond the three-point mark. Oh, and they still have CJ McCollum who averaged 24.4 points per game last round too. The Blazers have a capable lineup that is gelling at the right time and Lillard should have some credit for that.
The Youngest Roster in the Playoffs
Denver boasts the youngest playoff roster, which could both be a help and a hindrance in this series. The Nuggets have a good young lineup with Jamal Murray and Gary Harris in the backcourt and an MVP-caliber center in Nikola Jokic. Jokic, in particular, is the engine for Denver on offense. He is a superb passer and gives Denver another playmaker whether that is from the post or the elbow. He can initiate offense from anywhere, and the plethora of shooters Denver has makes it possible. Jokic averaged 23.1 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 9.1 assists per game last round and is the total package for the Nuggets. It would have been fascinating to see how Nurkic may have impacted him in the paint, but alas we will be left to wonder.
Why is a young playoff roster good? Denver has a good recipe cooking in young shooters with a tremendous passing big man in the middle to keep defenses moving and weary. Add the possibility of them hitting their shots, growing up in the national spotlight and gaining confidence and there is no telling what could happen. Murray had 21 points in the 4th quarter of Nuggets’ Game 2 win over the Spurs, a performance that proved critical to the series outcome. The detriment is that young shooters can mask as chuckers and effectively shoot their team out of the game.
While not part of the immediate young core, Denver needs to get something out of Will Barton who shot 33.3% from the floor in the last series against San Antonio. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Torrey Craig, a move that potentially bothered Barton. He needs to embrace the role off the bench and provide the second unit with some scoring, which so far he hasn’t quite done. In the last two games of the series, he scored five total points and shot 2-11 from the field. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley (ages 23 and 22, respectively) are talented off the bench too, but having a veteran like Barton be able to lead by example would be a big boom.
Portland has not been to a conference finals since the 1999-00 season, nearly twenty years. Denver has played better in the regular season, is the higher seed and has home court advantage. That being said, it is difficult to pick against the hotter Blazers who also have a confident roster that has been galvanized not only by Nurkic’s injury (and his support from the bench) but the cold-blooded nature of their star point guard in Lillard.
The Nuggets are young and will only get better from here on in the years to come. Portland is here and good now. I think they have suffered through enough playoff losses and painful post-sweep summers. The Blazers, led by Damian Lillard, advance to the Western Conference Finals for a chance to play in the NBA Finals.
Prediction: Blazers win the series 4-2
2019 NBA Playoffs Series Schedule
Portland at Denver April 29 10:30 pm EST TNT
Portland at Denver May 1 9:00 pm EST TNT
Denver at Portland May 3 10:30 pm EST ESPN
Denver at Portland May 5 7:00 pm EST TNT
Portland at Denver May 7 TBD*
Denver at Portland May 9 TBD*
Portland at Denver May 12 TBD*
* – if necessary