Nikola Jokic Leads Nuggets to Game 1 Win vs. Blazers Despite Damian Lillard’s 39
DENVER, CO - APRIL 29: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets looks to pass against the Portland Trail Blazers during Game One of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The Denver Nuggets won a second-round game for the first time since 2009 on Monday.

Denver now leads its series with the Portland Trail Blazers 1-0 following a 121-113 victory in Game 1 at the Pepsi Center. Portland may have been the more rested team after the Nuggets needed seven games to dispatch of the San Antonio Spurs, but that didn’t stop the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed from holding serve at home.

Nikola Jokic was dominant and stuffed the stat sheet with 37 points, nine rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks, while Paul Millsap (19 points and six boards) and Jamal Murray (23 points, eight assists and two steals) provided support.

Damian Lillard fought through consistent double-teams and led the way for the Trail Blazers with 39 points and six assists, but his team failed to come through on the defensive end with the game hanging in the balance.

           

Nuggets Frontcourt Advantage Is Big Enough to Win Series

On the surface, Enes Kanter had an impressive game.

He finished with 26 points and seven rebounds, providing much of the secondary offense for the Trail Blazers when Lillard was double-teamed. However, the defensive issues that have haunted him for much of his career reared their ugly head in Monday’s contest and proved costly for the visitors.

Opponents shot 3.9 percent better than their normal averages when he defended them during the regular season, per NBA.com, and he was unable to contain Jokic anywhere on the floor.

Jokic is a matchup problem for almost every big in the league, but the advantage is canyon-sized against Portland with Jusuf Nurkic sidelined with an injury and Kanter as a defensive liability who is fighting through a shoulder injury.

What’s more, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard are not talented enough to consistently contain the All-Star even though they are capable backups for stretches.

It was one thing for the shorthanded Trail Blazers frontcourt to deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, as their offense typically runs through Russell Westbrook or Paul George. Steven Adams is a formidable matchup, but it is easier to defend a big waiting for a dump pass in the post from a ball-dominant guard than someone like Jokic who can act like a center or point guard and generate offense in different ways.

Jokic posted up, worked in pick-and-pops, threaded passes from the high elbow and top of the key and even found Gary Harris with a bounce pass for the game’s best highlight:

It wasn’t just Jokic, though, who exploited Portland’s frontcourt. Mason Plumlee was an X-factor and did many of the little things to create separation throughout the game with six rebounds, five steals and a block. He battled Kanter on the glass and created havoc with his steals whenever Portland would come at him in the paint.

Millsap also demonstrated veteran guile by seeking out his shot when Jokic drew additional attention and going after matchups with Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless on the blocks when opportunities presented themselves.

Much like Kanter cannot stop Jokic, those stretch forwards can’t handle Millsap in one-on-one situations.

The Blazers didn’t miss Nurkic much in the first round against the Thunder, but they surely will in this matchup.

            

McCollum, Not Dame, Will Decide Portland’s Fate

There was no bigger storyline in the first round than Lillard, who battled Westbrook with trash talk, incredible plays and clutch three-pointers to propel his team into the second round.

It was a memorable performance even before he sent the Thunder home with the Game 5 buzzer-beater that sparked memes, an iconic celebration and the chance to literally wave Westbrook and Co. off the court.

The Nuggets were clearly paying attention, as they consistently blitzed Lillard with double-teams at the three-point line in an effort to get the ball out of his hands and force others to beat them. They appeared to catch him off guard at first, and he ended up with six turnovers in large part because he forced the issue at times.

Lillard had a mere nine field-goal attempts in the middle of the third quarter because of the defensive approach, although he adjusted and started to split the double-teams down the stretch and put up superstar numbers.

Still, Denver had the last laugh when Harris had a clutch block and poked the ball free from his hands on two separate possessions in the final minutes when he tried to go against the doubles by himself.

The fourth quarter may be “Dame Time,” but the Nuggets are going to force Portland’s other primary playmaker to carry the offense with this defensive approach. CJ McCollum did not answer the bell in Game 1 and finished with 16 points on 2-of-7 shooting from deep, three assists and two turnovers.

He also committed a flagrant foul and wasn’t aggressive with swing passes and open looks with so much defensive attention tilted toward Lillard.

McCollum is capable of carrying the entire offense for stretches and demonstrated as much in the series win over the Thunder. He scored more than 20 points in four of the five games, including a 33-point performance in Game 2, and shot a blistering 43.6 percent from three-point range in the series.

Whether that version of McCollum shows up in the series against Denver will determine Portland’s ultimate fate. The Nuggets did everything in their power to make sure Lillard wouldn’t single-handedly beat them, and even he isn’t capable of winning four games facing constant double-teams without significant help.

McCollum has to provide it if the Trail Blazers are going to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.

           

What’s Next?

Denver will host Game 2 on Wednesday.

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