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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Denver Versus Portland Preview

Western Conference Second Round

#2 Denver (54-28) vs. #3 Portland (53-29)

Season series: Denver, 3-1

Portland can win if…Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum dominate Denver's backcourt, while Portland's frontcourt at least slows down Nikola Jokic; the Nuggets went 3-0 versus the Trail Blazers this season in the games that Jokic played.

Portland did well to win a first round series as the favorite after suffering an embarrassing first round sweep last year but the Nuggets are a much better team than the Oklahoma City Thunder. Portland survived the absence of Jusuf Nurkic in the first round but now that Enes Kanter's status is questionable due to a shoulder injury the Trail Blazers could really suffer in terms of frontcourt size and depth.

If Kanter cannot deliver effective minutes, this could be a short series. On the other hand, all four head to head games between these teams were decided by less than 10 points, so it is possible that Portland Coach Terry Stotts will cobble together a way to extend the series even if Kanter is out or ineffective.

Denver will win because…the Nuggets are more talented, deeper and enjoy homecourt advantage. If Portland were at full strength--with a healthy Nurkic and Kanter--this series could potentially have gone the distance. Now, the main obstacle for the Nuggets is their lack of playoff experience, which leads to inconsistent performances from one game to the next. The Nuggets looked like they were hanging on for dear life as the San Antonio Spurs made a big second half comeback in game seven but perhaps surviving that experience will accelerate the Nuggets' growth as a contender.

Jokic had a fantastic series versus the Spurs, averaging 23.1 ppg, 12.1 rpg and 9.1 apg with shooting splits of .488/.333/.875. He had a triple double in game one (10 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists) and a triple double in game seven (21 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists) but there was a world of difference between those two triple doubles. In game one, Jokic had just nine field goal attempts and that is not enough aggression for a team's best player; in game seven, Jokic had 26 field goal attempts, fully accepting the responsibility that a team's best player must shoulder in order to advance in the playoffs.

Some players worry too much about "advanced basketball statistics" and efficiency; efficiency is important but not at the expense of aggressiveness, because when a great player is aggressive that breaks down the opposing team's defense even if that player does not shoot a high percentage in a particular game. Field goal attempts are not the only measure of aggressiveness but they are one good indicator. Aggressiveness should not be confused with taking bad shots or shots out of the context of the team's game plan; aggressiveness means taking the shots that a great player is expected to take based on the team's offense, as opposed to excessively deferring to less talented teammates.

Jamal Murray also had an excellent series (19.0 ppg, 4.1 apg, 2.7 rpg, .451/.343/.792). Lillard is a better player than Murray but Murray is not going to back down from the challenge and he is not going to be dominated; Lillard will probably have the better individual statistics during the series but this matchup will be competitive.

The Nuggets are a young team but they are also a well-constructed and well-coached team.

Other things to consider: If you believe the hype after Portland advanced, Lillard has now surpassed Russell Westbrook among the league's elite guards. Westbrook's career and some of the fallacies that media members commit while evaluating players are addressed in a separate article. This article will focus on Lillard, plus how Denver and Portland match up with each other.

Lillard averaged 33.0 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.4 rpg in the first round, with .461/.481/.846 shooting splits. He ended the series in dramatic fashion with a game-winning shot from well beyond the three point line. There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not that was a good shot but this is simple: when a team gets the ball with more than 10 seconds left in a tie game and ends up shooting the ball from nearly 40 feet, that is not a good shot and it is certainly not an optimal shot, unless one is saying that the coaching staff and players are so inept that they cannot run a play to generate a high percentage shot in that time frame against that particular team.

Much has been made about Lillard practicing that shot and having shot a good percentage on a small sample size of those shots; does that mean if a player practices half court shots and shoots a high percentage on a small number of them then he should deliberately aim to shoot a half court shot with a playoff game on the line? Get out of here. Lillard demonstrated a lot of confidence and a lot a skill and he deserves credit for his play throughout the series--more so than for just hitting one shot--but by no means was that a good shot or an optimal shot in that situation.

Regarding Lillard's overall play and his status in the league, this is Lillard's seventh season, sixth playoff appearance and third second round appearance. He has yet to advance past the second round. Stephen Curry has as many championships as Lillard has second round appearances, and Westbrook has more Western Conference Finals appearances (four) than Lillard has second round appearances. So, Lillard's resume in terms of team playoff success is a bit thin and that has to be considered before getting too excited about a sample size of five playoff games.

Granted, Lillard has little control over who his teammates are, and both Curry and Westbrook have, for at least part of their careers, been surrounded by better supporting casts than Lillard (though that has not been true for Westbrook for several years). Let's look at Lillard's individual career playoff numbers: boosted by his great first round--which represents one eighth of a playoff career that has only included 40 total games--Lillard's career playoff averages are 25.0 ppg, 5.7 apg and 4.5 rpg with .408/.364/.883 shooting splits. Of course after between four and seven second round games versus Denver those numbers may look a lot different--for better or worse.

Lillard has averaged at least 25 ppg in each of the past four regular seasons and he has averaged at least 25 ppg in three of the past four postseasons (albeit with field goal percentages below .370 in two of those four campaigns).

Should Lillard be in the conversation when the best point guards in the NBA are discussed? Yes. That conversation includes Curry, Westbrook, Harden* (the asterisk is because when Harden's game is analyzed one has to consider not only his consistent postseason choking but also the way that he is blatantly permitted to travel and to commit uncalled offensive fouls) and Kyrie Irving in addition to Lillard. Each of those players has individual strengths and weaknesses and each player's career has particular contextual factors that must be correctly analyzed/considered when ranking him alongside his peers. One first round series victory is certainly a piece of evidence to consider but it does not immediately or automatically change the rankings, despite the vocal overreactions of media members.

If Murray comes close to matching Lillard's individual numbers in this series and Denver wins, does that immediately elevate Murray to elite status? Of course not, though it would be a piece of evidence to consider.

The other guard matchup in this series, C.J. McCollum versus Gary Harris, will also be interesting. Harris missed 25 regular season games and averaged just 12.9 ppg on .424 field goal shooting when he played but he scored 14.7 ppg on .487 field goal shooting versus the Spurs. McCollum averaged 24.4 ppg on . 455 field goal shooting versus the Thunder. McCollum has a larger role for his team, which will likely result in him posting bigger numbers, but Harris is not going to back down and if the final series scoring averages are something like 21-17 in McCollum's favor as opposed to 24-15 then that is a victory for the Nuggets.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:19 PM



At Sunday, April 28, 2019 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

I've also got Denver over Portland, for most of the reasons you state.

I will note that I think the thing about that first round series that elevates Lillard (for me) above a guy like Westbrook is not only his scoring or his efficiency but that he finally fixed the biggest hole in his game and played, at least for five games, playoff-caliber defense.

An offensive player may have an off-night if his shot isn't falling but if he can make sure his opposite number's shot doesn't fall either, it mitigates some of the damage. Of course not all matchups allow for that (if Lillard is playing against Milwaukee, for instance, shutting down Eric Bledsoe or whomever is still a net loss for the Blazers if Lillard isn't cooking on offense) but at the very least it keeps a player from hurting his team in two directions.

If Lillard can continue to play playoff-caliber defense and score at an acceptable rate--something maybe halfway between his Round 1 performance and his prior playoff averages-- he will absolutely be performing at as high a (playoff) level as any guard in the league with the possible exception of Steph Curry (pending Curry's ankle/performance).

At Monday, April 29, 2019 1:52:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

I'll take the Nuggets by default because they look like the better team, but I honestly don't trust them.

At Saturday, May 04, 2019 11:28:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Well holy crap.

Gotta feel like Portland's got the emotional edge now, but hats off to Jokic--not exactly known for his conditioning-- gutting it out through 65 minutes. Wish he'd made that free throw, but guy definitely left it all on the court.


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