Backcourt battles and bench production - where Nuggets v Trail Blazers could be decided

Oleh E.Jay Zarett 30 April 2019 5
Backcourt battles and bench production - where Nuggets v Trail Blazers could be decided

The match-up between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers should make for an intriguing Western Conference semi-final series.

The Trail Blazers easily took care of the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the first round, while the Nuggets managed to advance by topping the San Antonio Spurs in a seventh-game decider.

The Nuggets finished with a 3-1 record against Portland in the regular season and have prevailed on six of the last seven occasions the teams have met.

“I think we're well-prepared," Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said, according to quotes in the Denver Post.  "We've been prepared for them all year. I think we've got a pretty good scout on them."

Here are three things that could decide who goes on to contest the Conference Finals in the West.

Trail Blazers assignment on Nikola Jokic

Jokic has had a breakout season for the Nuggets.

The gifted center averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals, helping Denver to a first play-off appearance since 2012-13. He made his first All-Star team and is in the MVP conversation, too.

Jokic continued his stellar play in his first NBA postseason series as he averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists over the seven games against the Spurs.  

Portland do not have a viable option who can match up with Jokic since they lost Jusuf Nurkic to a leg injury in late March. The Trail Blazers could use Enes Kanter on the Nuggets' star man, however, he struggles defensively and is dealing with a shoulder injury. Zach Collins may also spend time guarding Jokic, but he is inexperienced and plays only about 14 minutes per game in the play-offs.

Portland will need to figure out a way to slow down Jokic if they want to advance.

Battle of the backcourts

The Trail Blazers' strength is their guards.

Damian Lillard consistently performs at an All-Star level and almost single-handedly led Portland past the Thunder.

"He's special," Portland coach Terry Stotts told the media. "Dame's had a special year. He is in the category of all those guys that he probably doesn't get as much acknowledgement for, but he has been doing it. People in Portland know he's been doing it, he carried our team this year, so that's who he is and I'm thankful for it."

Lillard is complemented by C.J. McCollum, who is a strong secondary scoring option and playmaker.

Meanwhile, Denver's backcourt features young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. That pair will look to limit Lillard and McCollum defensively while offsetting their production with offense of their own at the other end.

Blazers' bench production

The Trail Blazers finished the regular season 18th in the NBA in bench scoring - and their production has fallen off in the play-offs.

Portland's second string are averaging just 18.8 points per game in the postseason, and Stotts has been forced to rely heavily on his starters. While that was not an issue against the Thunder, it could present a problem against the Nuggets, who have a stronger second unit.

The Trail Blazers will need more from their bench in this series if they are to progress any further in the Western Conference.

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E.Jay Zarett