Nikola Jokić and Damian Lillard are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do.
Through the first two games of this 1-1 series, the Denver Nuggets have gotten a combined 74 points from Jokić, who is also averaging 12 rebounds per contest. Lillard exploded for 42 points and 10 assists in Game 2, which followed up a 34-point and 13-assist performance.
But the supporting casts are essential in what is arguably the most 50-50 series in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, and it’s especially the case with Denver, who lost Jamal Murray to a torn ACL weeks before the postseason.
Enter Michael Porter Jr., famously a 2018 NBA Draft steal, who was the runner-up in this year’s Most Improved Player voting.
MPJ jumped from 9.3 points, and 4.7 rebounds per game on 51 / 42 / 83 shooting splits as a rookie in 2019-20 to 19 points, and 7.3 rebounds on 54 / 45 / 79 splits this regular season. In Game 1 of the playoffs, MPJ finished with 25 points and nine rebounds on 12-of-21 shooting, but he only drained 1-of-10 from deep and didn’t attempt a foul shot. The Nuggets lost 123-109, dropping their home court advantage over Portland in the process, though they did rebound for a 128-109 win last time out. In the victory, Porter wasn’t as good, netting 18 points and pulling down four boards while shooting an inefficient 5-of-13 from the field. But he was a very helpful 3-of-6 from deep and did convert on all five of his free throw attempts.
Looking through the rest of the Nuggets’ production in the victory, aside from their star, it was more balanced than their Game 1 collective effort. Paul Millsap (15), Aaron Gordon (13), Monte Morris (12), and Facundo Compazzo (12) combined for 52 points (13.0 per player) on 18-of-37 shooting. Gordon and Compazzo, who started, were also a +19 and +11, respectively. But in Game 1, despite a near 60-piece from Porter and Jokić, the same foursome of Gordon-Millsap-Morris-Compazzo combined for just 39 points (or less than 10 points per player) on 16-of-33 shooting: About the same percentage (over 48 percent) as Game 2. But the difference in aggression was instrumental, too.
In Game 1, the same four attempted two free throws. The entire team had eight (Jokić and Austin Rivers had the other six). But in Game 2? The Nuggets attempted 30 foul shots. Sixteen came from the Gordon-Millsap-Morris-Compazzo group, 11 were courtesy of the Jokić and Porter Jr. tandem.
There’s more to it than that, and there’s more to it than Porter Jr., but it also starts with winning the free throw game. Making them helps; the Nuggets hit 24-of-30 (80 percent). The Blazers got to 23-of-28 (82.1 percent) in Game 2, but seven of them (to the Nuggets’ four) came in the fourth quarter, where they trailed Denver by no fewer than 11 points the whole period.
The Blazers have a similar core that dropped off following their Game 1 win. CJ McCollum is the undisputed second in command in Portland and accumulated 21 points in the initial victory despite shooting just 8-of-20 from the field. Aside from him, Jusuf Nurkić, Norman Powell, Carmelo Anthony, and Anfernee Simons gave them 56 points on 21-of-39 (about 54 percent) shooting, even with a 3-for-11 from Powell. But in Game 2? Even though McCollum added 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting, you probably want him taking more than 12 shots in 38 minutes. (And you know why.) But the Nurkić-Anthony-Powell-Simons combination added just 30 points on 9-of-24 shooting, with only Powell hitting double figures (15 points). (Additionally, Enes Kanter hasn’t gotten going at all, accumulating six points and nine rebounds in over 32 minutes played this series.)
It’s a battle of supporting casts as much as it centers around stars, and while an MPJ star turn is welcomed, that alone clearly isn’t enough to drop Portland without positive production from the Gordon-Millsap-Morris-Compazzo, in particular. Don’t expect McCollum taking more shots to alleviate Portland’s struggles alone because he and Lillard will need that Nurkić-Anthony-Powell-Simons crew to step up. And Kanter probably more so than anyone, given his early struggles, and his size, which they need as much as they can get to deal with Jokić.