Western Conference semifinals preview: Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5012/" data-ylk="slk:Damian Lillard">Damian Lillard</a> is staring at his first career conference finals appearance. (Getty Images)
Damian Lillard is staring at his first career conference finals appearance. (Getty Images)

The third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers won their five-game first-round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, and the second-seeded Denver Nuggets followed on Saturday in seven games against the San Antonio Spurs. The teams last met in the playoffs in 1986, when Alex English and Kiki VanDeWeghe did battle.

How they got here

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Denver: The Nuggets transformed from an NBA League Pass favorite that narrowly missed the playoffs each of the past two seasons to the Western Conference’s surprise contender, thanks to the emergence of Nikola Jokic as an MVP candidate.

Jokic is the best passing big man of his generation, if not ever, and the fulcrum of an offense that has ranked among the league’s 10 best for three years running. Only the Golden State Warriors assisted on a greater percentage of their made baskets. Jokic kept the machine running despite injuries that cost fellow starters Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap a combined 76 games during the regular season.

In the process, the Nuggets emboldened their bench, getting solid contributions from reserve guards Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, who combined to shoot 40.7 percent on 632 3-point attempts, while posting four assists to every turnover.

Millsap was present for 70 games, almost twice as many as last year, and that’s a big reason for Denver climbing into the top 10 on defense after ranking in the bottom 10 the past two seasons. Harris is the guard version of Millsap — underrated as a heady and hardworking two-way force — and in 1,211 minutes with them on the floor, the Nuggets allowed 105 points per 100 possessions, a fraction of a point behind the Milwaukee Bucks’ top-ranked defense this season.

That trend carried through to the first round. Denver’s defense clamped down on the San Antonio Spurs, save for Derrick White’s 36-point explosion in Game 3, and the offense rode the wave of 22-year-old streak scoring threat Jamal Murray. In Nuggets losses in Games 1 and 3, Murray scored a total of 23 points on 30 shots, and he piled up 94 points on 66 shots over Denver’s wins in Games 2, 4, 5 and 7.

The Nuggets feature a roster full of untested players in the playoffs, and they just survived a first-round series against the best coach and most successful franchise of the past two decades. They now enter the conference semifinals with some intel on how to win in the postseason and a chance to gather more against another unproven team that does not necessarily own a talent advantage against them.

Portland: Well, Damian Lillard submitted one of the greatest close-out games in NBA history, scoring 50 points opposite 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook in Tuesday’s Game 5, capped by a 37-foot buzzer-beating game-winner over Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George to win a series in which they were underdogs.

Before that, though, the Blazers bounced back from last year’s equally (if not more) shocking sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans to win 53 games and reach the playoffs for a sixth straight season. They did so again on the strength of their dynamic backcourt duo, Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who combined to average 46.8 points on 45.1/37.1/88.9 splits, with 9.9 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game.

There was strength in the organization’s top-to-bottom continuity, starting with another Coach of the Year candidacy from Terry Stotts. By late March, the Blazers were a sleeper pick out West again, thanks in part to the progression of brutish 24-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic, who posted career numbers across the board.

Then, Nurkic fractured his left leg, and most everyone wrote the Blazers off as contenders. The sixth-seeded Thunder entered their first-round series as favorites, and Portland punched them in the mouth. Lillard was sensational, McCollum was a hair below that, and they got help from old OKC friend Enes Kanter, a late-season buyout addition who averaged a double-double doing his best Nurkic impression.

It didn’t take much more than that recipe against the Thunder, save for solid contributions from Portland mainstays Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless. It may take more than that against Denver, but nobody is writing the Blazers off anymore.

There are few more difficult defensive matchups for Enes Kanter than <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5352/" data-ylk="slk:Nikola Jokic">Nikola Jokic</a>. (Getty Images)
There are few more difficult defensive matchups for Enes Kanter than Nikola Jokic. (Getty Images)

Head to head

The Nuggets won the first three games between the two teams in the regular season, and then essentially tanked the fourth to set up this very scenario and avoid the Houston Rockets in the second round. That should give you an idea of how good they must feel entering this series, especially since they did not have Barton for the first meeting in November or Harris for the second in January.

Still, the series was much tighter than it sounds. Both of those first two games came down to one possession. McCollum missed Denver’s 119-110 victory on April 5 with a knee injury, and when he returned two nights later for Portland’s 115-108 win, the Nuggets rested Jokic, Murray and Millsap in preparation for the playoffs.

The biggest takeaways from the action that actually mattered: Jokic was great, Nurkic was important, and Lillard was not great. Those all bode well for Denver.

Jokic averaged 25.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and eight assists on 62/39/77 shooting splits in three games against the Blazers this season, including a monster 40-point performance in their second meeting. He wildly outplayed Nurkic (whose trade to Portland from Denver was made to facilitate Jokic’s rise), even though his former teammate submitted a pair of solid efforts against him before breaking his leg.

Before his 30-point outburst in the throwaway fourth meeting between the two teams, Lillard averaged just 18.3 points on 33.3 percent shooting, including a pair of his worst scoring outputs of the season in the only two games he faced Harris.

Likely starting lineups

Ever since Nurkic’s injury, the Blazers have relied on Kanter to start at center alongside Lillard, McCollum, Harkless and Aminu. That group appeared in just five games together during the regular season, finishing a net negative in 35 minutes — as opposed to that same group with Nurkic, which outscored opponents by a healthy 8.9 points per 100 possessions over 744 minutes in the regular season.

Despite concerns that Kanter’s porous pick-and-roll defense could crater what was already a middling outfit on that end without him, Portland’s starters held their own against Oklahoma City, outscoring the Thunder over another 102 minutes together.

Kanter played through pain after separating his left shoulder in the first quarter of Game 5. If he is hindered going forward, Portland would have to lean more heavily on rangy centers Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins. The Blazers enjoyed success against OKC with Leonard, but he could struggle containing Jokic’s craftiness.

The Nuggets began the playoffs with the same starting lineup that they employed down the stretch of the regular season: Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Jokic, who outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions in 430 minutes over 24 games entering the playoffs. The Blazers outscored that quintet by three points in a limited 14-minute sample size this season, and the Spurs outscored them by seven points through the first three games of the opening round of the playoffs.

Denver coach Mike Malone swapped Torrey Craig into the starting lineup for Barton in the final four games of the series. That group played 199 minutes together over 19 games during the regular season, and was outscored by an average of 6.1 points per 100 possessions. They were far more successful in the first round, outscoring the Spurs by 30 points in 59 minutes in their Games 4, 5 and 7 victories.

Don’t be surprised if Malone juggles Barton’s offense and Craig’s defense again, depending on which side of the ball most needs an infusion against the Blazers. Barton was not good in Round 1, which likely means Craig will start the semis.

Jamal Murray would do well to emulate Damian Lillard's consistent rise. (Getty Images)
Jamal Murray would do well to emulate Damian Lillard's consistent rise. (Getty Images)

Matchups to watch

Jokic vs. Kanter: In Portland’s third meeting with Denver during the regular season, Kanter scored 24 points in Nurkic’s absence, but the Blazers had no defensive answer for Jokic, whose near triple-double orchestrated an offense that scored 119 points in a blowout. The Nuggets scored a ridiculous 1.29 points per possession on the 59 trips up the floor that Kanter matched up with Jokic. Portland has also thrown Leonard and Aminu at Jokic, and the Denver star made eight of his nine shots in 40 possessions over three games against them. That’s a problem.

The backcourts: He’s already a four-time All-Star, but Lillard is transforming into a megastar before our eyes. He is the model of what Murray could become were he more consistent and clutch. But ... the Nuggets have had an answer for Lillard, at least during the regular season. Harris defended Lillard for 78 possessions over two games, holding him to six points on 1-for-8 shooting (0 for 5 from 3). A smaller sample size last year bore similar fruit. That likely leaves Murray on McCollum, who is certainly capable of assuming a star load, too. If Harris and Murray can even come close to competing with Lillard and McCollum, that’s a win for Denver.

The benches: During the regular season, the benches for the Nuggets and Blazers were both right around league average. That’s changed in the playoffs. Portland’s reserves averaged just 18.8 points per game on 37.6 percentage shooting against Oklahoma City, by far the worst scoring output of any bench unit in the postseason. Denver’s reserves are still scoring at an average rate, and that’s despite an abysmal series from Barton. If he ever gets hot, Portland could be in for a long series.

How Denver can win

Jokic and Millsap dominate Portland’s bigs, Murray maintains some level of consistency, Harris slows Lillard, and the Nuggets’ depth shines through. Everything always seems to hinge on Murray, but Harris, Morris, Beasley and Barton are all capable of picking up the scoring slack if the young gun goes cold, so there is a path to victory even without Jokic’s running mate firing away.

How Portland can win

Lillard is the best player in the series, and McCollum helps him outperform Denver’s backcourt by a greater margin than the gap between the two frontcourts. Outside of Kanter going ham — scoring in bunches, piling up offensive rebounds and holding his own defensively — it’s hard to imagine another way for the Blazers. All that said, Lillard is fully capable of anything at this point, so I doubt Portland at my own peril.

Prediction: Nuggets in seven.

Eastern Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 Boston CelticsNo. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers

Western Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 4 Houston RocketsNo. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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