The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets will kick off their opening-round series Saturday night in Denver. The Trailblazers should be eager to be back in the playoffs after falling short last year in the bubble. The Nuggets, on the other hand, are hoping to build upon the habits they created in the playoffs last year.
Those habits helped them knock off both the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs before ultimately losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers. This time around, the Nuggets will be without their second star
Series – Trailblazers: – 135
Series – Nuggets: + 105
The Nuggets enter the series as a rare higher seeded team that is not favored to win the series. That likely comes down to one simple thing, the absence of the Nuggets second-best player Jamal Murray. It makes one wonder if he is being overvalued in looking at the series price considering this team made a run to the Western Conference finals last year.
Then you look at their opponent. It’s hard to bet against Damian Lillard, especially when you take away the Nuggets best scorer. Michael Porter Jr. is a very good offensive player, but the Nuggets are going to miss the scoring burst from Murray to survive the offense of Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The Trailblazers are a smart bet with near-even odds. The price on this series could dramatically change very quickly after one of the early games. Off talent alone, the Trail Blazers could overwhelm the Nuggets.
Nikola Jokic vs Portland Bigs
The Trail Blazers have a very nice combination of talented big men. Jusuf Nurkic remains one of the league’s most underrated centers while Enes Kanter provides rebounding and nice offense off the bench. The problem will be successfully slowing down the soon-to-be Most Valuable Player award winner in Jokic.
He will need to do more in the absence of Murray but don’t put it past him to bring his scoring to a new level if that is what the team needs. Nurkic will have to avoid foul trouble because Kanter is now known for his defensive abilities. The best defenders struggle to slow him down, so Kanter is preferred to see most of his minutes when Jokic is getting a breather for the Nuggets.
Robert Covington vs Michael Porter Jr.
Covington was brought in to guard the best offensive wings in the league for Portland. Porter Jr. is not at that level yet but is a rising star in that department. Murray’s absence puts increased pressure on him as the team’s best pure scorer. He has to step up to help Jokic carry the load in this series and any potential series to come.
It will be a great test in facing Covington in this one. Not only that, but Covington has some support in players that can provide the team with a different but still strong defensive look. That would be in the form of guys like Derrick Jones Jr. and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Still, when push comes to shove, Covington is the man that is paid the big bucks to get these stops. His play on defense could ultimately decide which way this series goes.
Trail Blazers X-Factor: Norman Powell
We all know the duo of Lillard and McCollum are going to get it done on offense. The Nuggets will have to play extremely well just to keep up with the charge those guys lead.
Powell playing his best offensively could simply make for too much offense for the Nuggets to keep up with. Powell, who was added in a deadline deal, has proven to be a very good two-way player this year and will be getting a big contract this offseason. Before that, he will play a crucial role in helping the offensively dominant backcourt duo of Lillard and McCollum make a playoff run.
Since getting to Portland, Powell has averaged 17 points in 34.4 minutes per game. He is one of those guys that can get going in a heartbeat, and the Nuggets are in big trouble if they see that happening.
Nuggets X-Factor: Aaron Gordon
Like Powell, Gordon was added in a deadline deal. It makes sense both are X-Factors in this series, as that tends to be the type of players being targeted at the deadline by playoff-bound teams.
Gordon is in a bit different situation for his group, though. Unlike Powell, he is now the X-Factor because he needs to produce in a different way than what his game is best at. Gordon is a very well-rounded player who does a lot and helps in a number of ways. He can be used in a variety of ways offensively and really excels in a role that doesn’t put pressure on him to score.
The Nuggets have lost scoring punch, though. Although it isn’t the best way to utilize Gordon it is still something he can do and do at a well enough level. That much he has proven in his career. He can play a big role in not only slowing the Trail Blazers offense but also providing some much needed offense for him own team.
Prediction: Trail Blazers 4, Nuggets 2
The Trail Blazers will be too much to handle for the Nuggets and eventually pull away with this series. Lillard wants to win where he is now, and I expect him to pounce on this opportunity to advance in the playoffs because of the weakened opponent. Nurkic should also put up a strong series against his former team.
Check out our Playoff Preview for the Clippers vs Mavericks series.
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Main Image Credit: From Google Images