It’s a Northwest Division showdown in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs with the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets facing off. These two teams met on the final day of the regular season, with the red-hot Blazers beating Nikola Jokic and co. by 16 points. However, Denver took two out of three against Portland in 2020/21.
They also previously clashed in the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals, which saw the Blazers win 4-3 in seven games. The storyline of this series will be Jokic vs. Damian Lillard. Without Jamal Murray on the other side, Terry Stotts’ team will be looking to do some serious damage in the backcourt, but Denver is no pushover defensively.
Here are two predictions for this first-round matchup between the Nuggets and Blazers.
Dame Goes Off
The Portland Trail Blazers are in tremendous shape heading into the postseason. They’ve gone 10-2 in their last 12 games, beating teams like the Lakers, Jazz, and Nuggets.
Lillard voiced recently just how badly he wants to win a title in Portland. He just seems extra-motivated this season to do so and with a very solid core intact, this could be the year for them to make some noise.
Dame has dropped 30 or more points in eight of his last 10 appearances. In Lillard’s playoff career, he’s averaging 24.8 points and 5.8 assists. Although the Blazers have a 20-35 record in the postseason with Lillard at the helm, this could honestly be the chance for their franchise star to lead them to an upset over a depleted Nuggets team.
With Murray out for Denver, Dame is going to have a lot more room to operate at a high level. Mike Malone’s backcourt hasn’t been the healthiest in the first place even after Murray went on the shelf, with Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, and Will Barton all missing time recently. There should be absolutely no issues for Lillard to show out against the inexperienced Facundo Campazzo.
The road after beating Denver to an NBA title is going to extremely tough for the Blazers. But winning this series is a positive start. Lillard will rise to the occasion and along the way, he’ll certainly hit some more clutch shots.
Jokic Steps Up But Murray’s Absence Proves Costly
More likely than not, Jokic will be the MVP this season. He’s having a historic campaign as a true point center, leading his team in every category imaginable. While the Joker has always stepped up on the big stage with playoff averages of 24 points and 10 rebounds per game, the lack of production around him will prove costly against the Blazers. We’re all aware of what Murray did in the postseason last year in Orlando. He literally turned into a superstar, helping Denver advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
But, without him on the floor, the Nuggets won’t have the complementary scorer they need alongside Jokic like CJ McCollum is to Lillard. Michael Porter Jr has been very good over the last 17 games, averaging over 20 points. But, his postseason numbers have been poor (11.4 points per game) in limited appearances. As for Aaron Gordon, he’s barely played on this stage after spending the majority of his career in Orlando. Sure, he’s a respectable defender, but offensively, Gordon doesn’t jump off the page.
Even though the Nuggets went 13-5 after Murray’s season-ending injury, it won’t matter. Jokic unfortunately can’t do it all alone. The Blazers are not a good defensive team by any means, but they picked it up lately and should do just enough to contain the supporting cast around the Joker.
It’ll go the distance, but the Blazers will take this series in seven games.