The message was clear from the Trail Blazers during their Game 1 win over the Nuggets on Saturday night: If Nikola Jokic is going to beat Portland, then he won’t be doing it as a passer.
Denver’s MVP candidate had 34 points and 16 rebounds in a 123-109 loss, but he was limited to a season-low and playoff career-low one assist. That was largely due to Terry Stotts’ game plan, which called for single coverage on Jokic rather than aggressive double-teams. It’s a smart strategy considering the Nuggets are currently relying on backup guards who don’t typically create their own offense following the losses of Jamal Murray, Will Barton and PJ Dozier to injuries.
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Jokic torched Trail Blazers big men Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter in the early going of Game 1. Check out how much time and space Jokic has to operate here.
Portland refused to send help even on clear mismatches. When Robert Covington (6-7, 209 pounds) switched onto Jokic (6-11, 284 pounds), every other Trail Blazers defender stayed home.
If they aren’t coming to double when Jokic has Covington on him, they aren’t coming to save anyone. Jokic has 22 points, six rebounds, and zero assists. pic.twitter.com/chVz5IBAKt
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 23, 2021
Jokic dropped 22 points in 18 first-half minutes, but he walked into the locker room with zero assists and a narrow three-point lead. His one-on-one success didn’t deter the Trail Blazers one bit, as they stuck to the script over the final two quarters.
Jokic is just so unbothered man. Nurkic is giving all the effort. Recovers to the pop. Contains the drive. Is there in the post. Jokic just took two dribbles turned and let it go. pic.twitter.com/PArURVofpl
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) May 23, 2021
That persistence paid off against arguably the greatest passing center of all time. With Jokic unable to set up easy opportunities for his teammates, Portland outscored Denver 65-48 in the second half on its way to a 1-0 series lead.
While the Trail Blazers’ dynamic duo of Damian Lillard (34 points, 13 assists) and CJ McCollum (21 points) did damage, they also got a major boost from Nurkic (16 points, 12 rebounds, five assists), Carmelo Anthony (18 points) and Anfernee Simons (14 points). The non-Jokic Nuggets weren’t terrible from the field, but they struggled from 3-point range and didn’t get to the free throw line. Michael Porter Jr. in particular had a rough night, going 1 of 10 from beyond the arc with no free throw attempts.
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After Game 1, Stotts, Lillard and Nurkic all noted how important it is to not allow Jokic to involve others. Denver’s offense is better when Jokic is throwing darts out of the post that lead directly to buckets or start a chain reaction from which the defense can’t recover. That simply didn’t happen Saturday.
Despite being a No. 3 seed in the Western Conference with the likely MVP, it sure feels like the short-handed Nuggets are facing an uphill climb. The Trail Blazers’ approach laid bare their limitations, and Jokic’s individual brilliance may not be enough to overcome them.
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