Playoff series can create mutual animosity, and that seems to be what’s happening in the Western Conference’s first round.
The Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers are in the same division, and they slugged it out in a seven-game series two years ago, but the intensity has ratcheted up in the first two games of their series this year.
Game 2, won by Denver on Monday to even the series 1-1, featured four technical fouls, two flagrant fouls and 52 common fouls. There was pushing and jawing between the teams, and no one is shying away from any of it.
That should make Thursday night more intriguing when the series continues with Game 3 in Portland. Denver counterpunched in Game 2, getting more physical and defending the 3-point line better — except when Damian Lillard was shooting. The result was a 19-point win two nights after the Trail Blazers won Game 1 by 14.
The physical play was accented by a lot of talking by the Nuggets, according to Portland players.
“Their bench was talking all night, and we are a team that are no punks,” Trail Blazers guard Norman Powell said. “We are not going to back down to nobody. … You are going to have to earn everything. But they were the more physical team, and it showed.”
Denver made some on-court adjustments to slow down Lillard. He had 32 points in the first half of Game 2, but coach Michael Malone used 6-foot-10 Aaron Gordon on him in the second half, which helped hold Lillard to 10 points.
“Dame was going crazy in the first half, and it almost looked like we didn’t have an answer for him,” Gordon said. “I looked at the coaching staff and said, ‘I got him.'”
The next adjustment will come from Portland, which wasn’t surprised by Gordon guarding Lillard.
“He’s a bigger defender, taller guy, more athletic … but I’m used to that. In the regular season, whoever is (the opponent’s) defensive wing, that’s who guards me,” said Lillard. “That was the adjustment they went to in the second half, but I just think they gave me more attention, more so than one guy. I’m never going up against just one guy.”
Denver also used guard Shaquille Harrison to slow down Lillard, and he was effective in doing that at times.
The Nuggets also had more movement around Nikola Jokic when he had the ball on offense. Jokic had a career playoff-low one assist in Game 1 and finished with five in Game 2.
Denver’s chances of stealing a game in Portland would increase if guard Will Barton can return from a right hamstring strain that he suffered April 23. Barton could provide another body to guard Lillard and CJ McCollum as well as give the Nuggets more offense.
Denver has not said when Barton will return but has indicated he is close to playing again.
When and if Barton does come back in this series, he will get to experience the playoff intensity.
“We’re both fighting for something and that’s the way the playoffs should be,” Malone said.
–Field Level Media