Nuggets

Can Denver Push Past Portland Without Their Blue Arrow?

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As the NBA season came to a close last Sunday, all eyes moved to the league’s play-in tournament. By Friday evening, the fate of the remaining 16 teams will be determined, with the playoffs set to commence the following day.

One of those teams in action on Saturday evening is the Denver Nuggets, who are set to take on Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.

The meeting is a repeat of the 2019 Western Conference semi-final, which Portland clinched in a dramatic seven-game series.

INJURY-RIDDLED DENVER

Since that heartbreaking defeat at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets have gained playoff experience and progressed as a team. Last season, Denver made consecutive back-to-back comebacks from a 3-1 deficit against both the Jazz and Clippers. This allowed the Nuggets to reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009.

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Over the past three seasons, the Nuggets are the only Western Conference team to have consecutively secured home-court advantage. This year, Denver will hope to go one step beyond and reach their first-ever NBA Finals.

They have, however, been hit with the injury bug throughout the season. Most notably, Denver will be without Jamal Murray for the playoffs. The former Kentucky guard made his mark in last year’s postseason by averaging 26.5 points per game.

The value of the Blue Arrow cannot be understated. With the additions of Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee at the trade deadline, it wouldn’t have been out of this world to label the Nuggets as genuine title contenders earlier this season.

The Canadian guard is one of few players who could match Damian Lillard’s scoring in the series. Therefore, his absence could give Portland the upper hand.

JOKIĆ’S DOMINANCE

Despite being without Murray, one player the Nuggets have relied on this season is none other than Nikola Jokić.

The Serbian center just completed an MVP-caliber season, where he averaged a more-than-impressive 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists. This is almost unheard of given his mammoth stature of 6’11.

Throughout the regular season, the Joker also set new career highs in points (50), rebounds (22), assists (18) and steals (7). He is the first player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists for four consecutive seasons. As a result, the big man has helped carry Denver into the third seed.

Jokić has been phenomenal. Portland will be very much aware of the big man’s talents– especially given  he averaged 27.1 points against them in the playoffs two years ago.

Stopping the Joker is a whole different story, however. He has evolved his game to a new level this season while showing no signs of stopping.

THE LANDING OF MICHAEL PORTER JR.

If the Nuggets are to power past Portland, you would think that it is mostly a result of Jokić’s brilliance. But if there was to be any silver lining to Murray’s injury, it is that Michael Porter Jr. has blossomed into a resilient, efficient shooter.

Despite an inconsistent start to the season, Porter’s game has drastically improved in the past few weeks. The former Missouri forward has emerged as a late MIP contender, boosting his season average to 19 points per game.

March was a turning point in Porter’s season, as he averaged 20.3 points on a staggering 52.2% shooting from behind the arc.

The No. 14 pick in the 2018 draft finished the season shooting 54.2% from the field. With Murray absent, MPJ will be undoubtedly be Denver’s secondary scorer.

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High-Octane Series Incoming

There is no denying that Michael Malone’s Nuggets are a worse team without Jamal Murray. However, Denver is still a respectable 16-8 without him this season and may fancy their chances against one of the regular season’s worst defenses.

Conversely, the scoring threats of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum will push Portland. This will help to form a series saturated with entertainment.

Ultimately, Denver will be looking to seek revenge on Portland after their defeat two years ago. The Nuggets will be relying on both Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokić, in the hopes of edging what is expected to be a closely fought series.

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