By Casey Mabbott, Oregon Sports News
Well dear readers, your Portland Trail Blazers are in the fight of their lives. They have already matched their second round win total (2) in the last 18 years, and are two more wins away from their first trip to the conference finals in – you guessed it – 19 years. Unfortunately, they are also one loss away from losing in the second round for the third time since the 2000 playoffs. Whatever happens from here, this is the farthest a Blazers team has advanced in nearly two decades, let’s celebrate that and not lose sight of what they have accomplished if they should see the offseason earlier than expected.
This is a good team playing like a great team despite some talent shortcomings and a critical player being injured. With Jusuf Nurkic on the court, this Portland team is probably up 3-2 or even done with this series by now. But for the present reality, they are down 3-2 and have no answer for Denver superstar center Nikola Jokic.
With a win or stay home game tonight, and two physically and mentally banged up teams fighting for their playoff lives, we asked Casey Mabbott (CM) and Bryant Knox (BK) to tell us what to expect from your Trail Blazers, how they can adjust to a suddenly physical and insulted Denver team, and Portland does happen to advance, which team would we want them to face in the conference finals?
For that and more, and without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round:
1. Portland returns home tonight for their first elimination game of the 2019 playoffs. If they win, they get another shot in Game 7. If they lose, it’s the end of their season. How fired up do you expect the team and their fans to be tonight?
(CM) This might be the loudest the Moda Center has been since they changed the name in the summer of 2013, and might match the noise that met Damian Lillard’s 0.9 series killing shot heard round the world. Maybe even louder than when he took Paul George to school with a series clinching 37 foot dagger way back in April of 2019. And if the Blazers win tonight, it might be the second loudest a stadium full of Blazers fans has been since June 5th, 1977. It’s been way too long since this team has been in real title contention, and if this series goes the way we want it to, this stadium is going to be rocking, and I have zero doubt the bench and the fans will help energize the starters and help get them to a game seven on Sunday, and their most important game seven since the Western Conference Finals in the year 2000.
(BK) I fully expect Damian Lillard to come out and launch one of those 30-plus-footers on the first possession to let the crowd know it’s ‘OKC Dame Time’ out of the gate. The Blazers and the crowd will be pumped, but that’s sort of the problem with this group of Nuggets players—they play a very businesslike brand of basketball and don’t get rattled easily. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see the Blazers go on a nice little 11-2 run to open the first quarter; I also wouldn’t be surprised if Denver led 28-25 at the end of the same period.
2. Damian Lillard has not been able to play in his comfort zone, as Denver has sent multiple defenders at him to make sure he is always covered by fresh legs. How can his teammates and specifically CJ McCollum help him out?
(CM) Someone has got to get red hot, and they need to do it quickly, and their name is CJ. I don’t know where the Nugget Killer from game three went, but he needs to get involved and get his shot falling fast in game six after pedestrian (by superstar standards) performances in games four and five. He’s called himself a killer, he’s called referred to himself as a lion, he’s referred to himself as a shark, he’s told us he’s built for this. We believe all of that about you CJ, and we believe in you. And we believe you’ll partner with Lillard to save the day tonight. Lillard has shown how good he can be when he gets help, and we have seen in this series and the New Orleans series last year what happens when his support disappears. I think after decades of it we can all handle watching Portland miss out on the final two rounds of the playoffs, but we would really like to see them go down swinging if it’s going to happen. The effort in game five just wasn’t there, we need the total team effort from the OKC series to make a comeback, that’s the level Denver is at now, and if we want to win this game and this series, that’s the level we need to meet or exceed.
(BK) This is where the Blazers really miss Jusuf Nurkic. Enes Kanter just isn’t the same playmaker out of the elbow or the top of the key three-point-line extended. Nurk wasn’t the playmaker he is today during the NOLA series a year ago, which is why dumping it off to him wasn’t the safety blanket it would’ve been this postseason. CJ needs to play an efficient game, but I don’t need it to be high-volume. I’d rather see someone like Harkless making all the blue-collar and 50-50 plays, Al-Farouq hitting from the corner, Seth Curry providing offense off the bench and Kanter bodying up The Joker while Dame follows the blueprint from ‘OKC Lillard Time.’
3. Nikola Jokic is playing at an all-time level, nearly averaging a triple double in addition to three uncalled elbows a game. Portland has tried a combination of rotating defenders and double teams, short of Jusuf Nurkic having a miraculous Willis Reed moment, is there anything the Blazers can do to slow Jokic?
(CM) Honestly, it’s a long shot of bad options. They don’t have a big on the active roster with the size, athletic ability, and basketball talent to deal with Jokic full time. Nurkic was that guy, but he isn’t available, so the job falls to a combination of Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, and Al-Farouq Aminu, and Meyers Leonard. All have shown great effort, but none of them are on the level of Nurkic and Jokic, so it’s not fair to assume they can deal with a top-5 center full time. Leonard is the toughest of the three, but even he gives up a lot of size to Jokic, and then Kanter and Collins are better served as power forwards, as they just weren’t built to be a NBA center, so it’s unlikely either turns in to one overnight. In a perfect world, Aminu would never guard Jokic but all hands means all hands. A win tonight is going to have to look a lot like game two, with Portland throwing everything and everyone at Jokic and making him pass, and rotating Moe Harkless and Lillard on Jamal Murray. If you can take away Denver’s best scoring threats like they are doing to us, I don’t think their support guys can keep up with Portland’s shooters, if Dame and CJ have their shots falling anyway. If we ever needed Lillard time, it’s now, and it’s now or never.
(BK) The only thing I can think of is that you have to come up with a new gimmick. The Utah Jazz did it by guarding James Harden from behind and to the left; the LA Clippers and Pat Beverley did their own version of the same against KD and Stephen Curry. The only thing I can think of is to start using CJ McCollum to double-team Jokic every time he’s off the ball but the ball is on his side of the court to prevent the inside pass. It becomes a mess if CJ’s man isn’t able to rotate appropriately, but the Blazers can’t follow the blueprint Boston drew a couple of years ago when it successfully used the much smaller but stouter Marcus Smart to defend Kristaps Porzingis straight up. Smart was able to bully the string bean of a center, whereas McCollum would bet plowed over every time down the court. If Portland can somehow find a new scheme that prevents Jokic of touching the ball as often as he does, it has found away to remove the engine that makes the Nuggets go, even if just for a possession at a time.
4. If the Blazers win tonight, what chance do you give them to go in to Denver and win game seven?
(CM) 50/50. That may not seem very generous, but when you take an honest look at Portland’s recent track record on the road in the playoffs, 50% is generous. Seeing as their current playoff road success rate is 40%, I’ll spot them an extra 10% because of how important the game would be, and I believe they will want to win enough to overcome their past road woes, as they did in game two. Now will Denver be able to match their effort? Maybe, I would hope two grueling seven game series would drag them down to our level, but they have shown a resiliency to fatigue that I didn’t anticipate whereas Portland seems to be looking for reasons to hang their heads when the chips don’t fall their way. I’m not going to lie and say the refs didn’t potentially critically alter the series with their officiating in the third quarter of game four, but Portland has had and still has plenty of chances to turn this around and move on, and I genuinely expect them to rise up and show how good they really are.
(BK) Let’s just say I felt a lot better about it before the series. I picked Portland in 7 before Round 2 began because I felt Portland would start hot and eventually cool. This has been an odd balance, but the truth is that Denver has just overwhelmed the Blazers from the beginning overall. Grinding out a series in seven games is never easy, and asking the Nuggets to two it twice in a row puts them at a huge disadvantage. But the Blazers aren’t getting any bigger or any better at defending guys like Jamal Murray in isolation between now and then. I’d give the Blazers a 45%, and that feels generous just knowing what Damian Lillard is capable of.
5. Should Portland advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years, who would you rather see them face – Golden State or Houston?
(CM) I’m not sure Portland has the energy or depth left to win a series against either team, but I guess I would rather see Golden State just to see if we can finally compete with them when everything is on the line. We have this annual trend of destroying them at the all-star break, only to let them make us look like a second rate team when the postseason rolls around. Even if Portland gets to the next round and gets sent home, if they can win two games against the Warriors, it would do a ton for team and fan confidence going in to next season with a healthy Nurkic returning and may even help Portland’s sad history of luring quality free agents here. Honestly, a competitive series against either team would be a big confidence swing for Rip City, but if they get there only to win one game or get swept, it might undo everything this great season has built. But it won’t – we won’t forget Lillard’s 37 footer, and we won’t forget nice guy likable Paul George whining about being beat. And we definitely won’t forget Meyers Leonard giving Jokic a nice little shoulder thank you for all of the uncalled elbows.
(BK) My gut says the Blazers would rather see the Rockets for three key reasons: A) We’ve seen what happens when they go cold. B) I just don’t trust Chris Paul to stay healthy through a conference finals series. C) Any day you can avoid playing the Warriors in a game of Dr. James Naismith’s “Basket Ball” is a good day. Except for one small detail: Golden State could very well be without its back-to-back Finals MVP, Kevin Durant. KD went down Wednesday night with what’s being called (as of this writing) a calf strain, and his time table for return is very unclear. … Here’s the thing: Playing the Warriors down a star is like playing any other very good team at full strength. This is essentially a better version of the same team that won its first title, after all, when you remove Durant from the equation. But continuity is key, and if the Warriors like each other as much as they want us to think they like each other, they’ll struggle down their best player. … All that said, how amazing would it be if the core of Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson-Draymond Green went on an epic tear, putting together the most dominant Conference Finals and Finals series we’ve ever seen in league history? As terrifying as it would be every other team still standing, how incredible would it be to watch firsthand the Warriors pack Durant’s bags for him and buy his first-class ticket to New York? Aside from the Blazers advancing and winning it all, this is the scenario that I root for. This is what will keep me going if the Blazers are bounced after witnessing one of the more remarkable rounds in franchise history.