'Dame Time' for Nuggets after surviving Spurs

NBA.com Global on Apr 29, 2019 10:35 AM
'Dame Time' for Nuggets after surviving Spurs
FILE - PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 8: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers is seen against the Utah Jazz on April 8, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

Like all great warriors, he studies and quotes Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. And he always seems to be the calmest and most measured man on the court or in the room.

Damian Lillard, you see, is built for these pressure-packed playoff moments, both those he’s already experienced and those to come.

His legend grows with each and every scintillating moment he provides for the Portland Trail Blazers during this postseason run. (SEE: The 37-footer that ended the Oklahoma City Thunder season.)

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So to say Lillard is eager to keep it going against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals would be an understatement of epic proportions.

Lillard was born for this, relishes the white-hot spotlight the playoffs provides and is just getting started in his attempt to rewrite this current Blazers crew’s playoff legacy.

That might explain his mild surprise at the reaction of folks in the Moda Center and bars around the city after his step-back dagger to finish off the Thunder. The wild celebration caught him off guard, mostly because he expected to come through in the clutch even if no one else did.

“What if we win the second round? What if we go to the Western Conference finals?,” Lillard said of his focus after digesting the reaction. “How are they going to react then?’ That was my mentality.”

Being swept out of the playoffs in your two previous postseason appearances has a way of hardening the heart of a true competitor like Lillard, whose entire NBA career to this point has been the personification of outperforming expectations.

A trying season that began with the Blazers dealing with the death of owner Paul Allen culminated with the loss of starting center Jusuf Nurkic being lost for the postseason with a compound fracture of his left leg.

Another early exit for the Blazers, however painful, would have been understood given the circumstances.

Lillard wasn’t having it. Not at this stage of his career. Not with the clock ticking on his chance to compete at the highest level in his prime. And certainly not with a path to the conference finals — the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are in the conference semifinal on the other side of the bracket — in plain sight.

A Nuggets team believing in its own destiny stands in the way, of course.

But for Lillard, as he stated repeatedly during the Thunder series, it’s not about the other team.

It’s about the Blazers, the guys in red and black, and the Blazers only.

If they do what they’re supposed to do, the rest will fall into place accordingly. He’s preached it non-stop to his guys from the start, leading in words, deeds and spirit.

And they are clearly ready to follow him wherever he takes them.

“I don’t think anybody in here is satisfied,” said Blazers swingman Moe Harkless. “We’re happy that we were able to take care of business in the first round, but we’re not satisfied. We know that we’ve got more work to do. We’re capable of doing more things this postseason.”

Three things to watch

1. Can Damian Lillard keep it going? The cold-blooded assassin that Lillard can be was on full display in a five-game rout of Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. Dame shot a mind-boggling 48.1 percent on shots from beyond the three-point line, including a perfect 5-for-5 from 30 feet and beyond. Even if the Nuggets could find someone on the roster eager for the challenge, there’s still the matter of doing the job. And no one still operating in this postseason (outside of Golden State’s Kevin Durant) is doing their job better than Lillard. He’s playing not so much with a chip on his shoulder after recent playoff disappointments, but with the unwavering focus of a man you’d think had been through this countless times before. And he’s most dangerous because he knows how to compartmentalize his emotions and stay locked in on the most immediate objective.

2. How do the Trail Blazers deal with Nikola Jokic? To borrow a phrase from the Golden State Warriors, strength in numbers. That's the only way the Blazers can combat what Jokic, potentially the best-passing big man we’ve seen in generations, brings as a triple-double threat every night. Plus, without Jusuf Nurkic and with Enes Kanter dealing with a sore shoulder, Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins will have to provide quality minutes against Jokic anyway. That rotation dealt with the brute force of Steven Adams in the first round but now they’ll be faced with the do-it-all wizardry of perhaps the most skilled jumbo athlete in the league. They’ll need numbers to get it done.

3. Is Denver’s bench mob is legit? Absolutely. Nuggets coach Mike Malone deploys Malik Beasley, Mason Plumlee and Monte Morris the way Clippers coach Doc Rivers unleashed Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell on the rest of the league all season. The tempo change is real when the Nuggets’ bench mob provides that energy boost. Morris might very well be the best true point guard on the roster and Beasley will be critical in matching up as a defender on Lillard or McCollum when he gets assigned to either one of the Blazers stars. Plumlee’s work in relief of Jokic all season has not been celebrated as it should have been. And Malone might play them together more in this series to take advantage of his bigger lineup against a Blazers team that appears to be soft(er) in the middle without Nurkic available.

Number to know

13.8 percent -- In the regular season, only 13.8 percent of Nuggets' defensive possessions were classified as pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions by Synergy play-type tracking. That was the league's second-lowest opponent rate, higher than only that of the Houston Rockets' switch-heavy defense. The Nuggets have one of the league's most aggressive defenses in regard to getting the ball out of the ball-handler's hands. And when ball-handlers kept it, the Denver defense allowed just 0.83 points per possession, the league's fifth-best rate.

Damian Lillard, of course, is a high-usage and highly efficient pick-and-roll player. In the regular season, he ranked fifth with 10.9 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game, and the 1.08 points per possession he scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler was the best mark among 43 players that averaged at least five of those possessions per contest. In the playoffs, both of those numbers have been higher. Lillard averaged 12.4 ball-handler possessions per game in the first round, and he scored 1.11 points per possession on them.

But in his four regular-season games against Denver, Lillard's pick-and-roll numbers were down: He averaged just 8.5 ball-handler possessions per game against the Nuggets, and he scored just 0.85 points per possession on them. Lillard's usage rate against Denver was just 22.2 percent, his lowest mark against any Western Conference opponent.

The Nuggets certainly haven't been an elite defensive team overall. They ranked 10th defensively in the regular season and 10th in the first round. The season series between these two teams (which Denver won 3-1) was efficient on both ends of the floor, with the Nuggets and Blazers combining to score more than 116 points per 100 possessions over the four games. But Denver's defense has been relatively successful in taking away Portland's bread-and-butter.

-- John Schuhmann, NBA.com

The pick

The Nuggets had to grind all the way to a Game 7 against the Spurs and then survive a fourth-quarter meltdown to reach this point, so it’s easy to assume that they’ll continue to struggle through their first postseason run as a group. Be careful with those easy assumptions this time of year. There’s a reason these two teams were slotted in the second and third spots in the Western Conference playoff chase. This is as fair a fight on this side of the bracket as Warriors-Rockets is on the other side. As good as Jokic has been in this postseason, and he’s been terrific, the Nuggets will need everything he can muster and more to fight off the wrath of Lillard and McCollum now that they’ve had a little rest after their own postseason breakthrough. That best home record in the league carries Denver into the conference finals for the first time since Carmelo Anthony was rocking the Pepsi Center this late in a season. Nuggets in 7.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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