Denver Nuggets, NBA Playoffs, Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic lead contrasting offenses in fascinating matchup

The Blazers and Nuggets both had elite offenses this season but reached those heights in different ways behind Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic.

Stylistic diversity in the NBA is dead, or so those not familiar with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers’ work this season will tell you. The two teams, set to square off in the first round of the NBA playoffs on Saturday, have the commonality of a supercharged offense driven by a supremely talented offensive catalyst, but how they arrive at those endpoints could hardly be more divergent.

While the Nuggets play a middle-out offensive style around Nikola Jokic’s genius passing, the Trail Blazers subsist on an avalanche of individual shot creation spearheaded by Damian Lillard’s limitless pull-up shooting. Denver’s offense centers on movement of both the ball and players; Portland runs one of the most static offenses in the league. Both approaches are exceedingly difficult to guard — the Blazers finished the season second in offensive efficiency, the Nuggets were fifth — and each has powered a recent trip to the Western Conference Finals.

Those numbers all directly reflect the individual stylings of Jokic and Lillard, whose contrasting skill sets ask vastly different yet equally challenging questions of rival defenses. How each of these teams deals with the opposing star will likely decide which one emerges from what could be the most captivating series of the first round.

What makes Damian Lillard’s offensive primacy so different from Nikola Jokic’s?

Any team preparing for Portland’s backcourt must work from the outside in. Lillard and CJ McCollum are two of the deadliest pull-up artists in the world; a sliver of space between them and a defender may as well be a gulf, and dropping your center back against pick-and-rolls serves as a standing invitation to launch:

While Jamal Murray’s season-ending ACL injury left Denver thinner on shot creation and off-ball gravity from beyond the arc, replacing his minutes with Facundo Campazzo, P.J. Dozier, and Shaquille Harrison makes the Nuggets better equipped to defend a backcourt like Portland’s. That trio can apply more pressure and stick closer to Lillard over ball screens than Murray could, and while all three defenders present their own offensive limitations, that improved point-of-attack defense could serve Denver well in this particular series.

That still won’t stop the Nuggets from sending additional defenders Lillard’s way — namely Jokic, whose agility the Blazers will test with a constant stream of pick-and-rolls. Denver will at least bring its bigs up to the level of the ball screen in those scenarios, if not outright blitz the ball-handler, in order to force the ball out of Lillard’s hands. That approach may theoretically give Portland an opening to attack the slow-footed Jokić on the perimeter, but it isn’t too far a deviation from how Denver’s 11th-ranked defense typically defends ball screens. The Nuggets can — somewhat counterintuitively — mask Jokić’s lack of mobility by bringing him farther out on the floor. Instead of getting burned by dropping back and trying to corral an athletic guard speeding toward him, Jokić plays more aggressively to keep guards from turning the corner and deter escape passes:

The Nuggets had modest success using that tactic against Lillard in their three regular-season meetings (although the third came on the final day of the season, when Denver, um, refrained from putting its best foot forward in an attempt to improve its playoff seeding). They held his scoring volume and efficiency below his full-season marks while turning him over more than usual. Lillard responded to that extra attention not by forcing the issue, but seeing beyond the coverage and finding teammates for open looks. He averaged just over nine assists per game against the Nuggets — his fifth-highest mark against any team — and generated more than 25 points per game via assist. (That ability to get rid of the ball when necessary, combined with his absurd shot-making, vaulted Lillard into the fringes of the MVP conversation this season and led the Blazers to nearly 1.22 points per possession with him on the court.)

But forcing the ball out of Lillard’s hands puts a larger share of Portland’s offense on the shoulders of its more limited role players, thus limiting the direct damage he and McCollum can inflict. Both guards have the range and craft to generate shots from thin air against even the most engaged playoff defenses, and trade deadline addition Norman Powell offers a pressure-release valve the Blazers haven’t had in years past. But Portland’s backcourt will run under heavy workloads in this series, and the Nuggets will comfortably surrender opportunities to lesser players if it allows them to keep the primary scoring duo under wraps.

The Blazers could employ a similar strategy against Denver, though the Nuggets may be slightly better equipped to counter it. Absent Murray (and potentially Will Barton), Denver lacks anything approximating Lillard’s perimeter creation or court-bending off-the-bounce shooting. What they do have is the most skilled offensive center in NBA history who can manipulate opposing defenses from all areas of the floor. Jokic is one of the most efficient, well-rounded scorers on the planet, yet he’s even more lethal as a passer — a combination that makes him arguably the best offensive player in basketball and this season’s runaway MVP. Denver scored over 121 points per 100 possessions with their center on the floor this season, and didn’t miss a beat after Murray went down.

Math and logic would suggest that Portland should play Jokic straight-up with its centers while staying home on shooters and cutters; the Blazers can weather a dominant scoring run from Jokić, but may not survive him opening up the game for the rest of the team. But sound mathematical schemes and statistical probabilities are harder to trust when Jokic is schooling your best defenders with post spins, Sombor Shuffles, and every other flavor of schoolyard trickery. Jokić tests his opponent’s faith in its game plan, makes them question the thought process behind every decision. Most teams eventually send help, which automatically triggers a flurry of cuts, screens, and other movement around Jokic to give him as many targets as possible against an imbalanced defense. Having usually dragged the opponent’s center away from the basket, Jokić then finds teammates for easy, uncontested layups:

But just as Denver partially mitigated Lillard’s greatest strength in the regular season, the Blazers held Jokic to just 12 total assists in three meetings, almost none of which were of the kind of improvisational, manipulative looks that make him such a dangerous weapon. If Portland can obscure Jokic’s vision and confine the Nuggets’ firepower to a more narrow range of players (Michael Porter Jr. is the only other real concern as an individual creator), they might hope to limit Denver’s offense just enough to outscore them over a long series. The Nuggets’ defense, however, is slightly better suited to mitigate Portland’s offense than vice versa — even if the immutability of Lillard and McCollum gives Denver serious problems — and their offensive unpredictability may ultimately prove too much for the Blazers’ shaky, undersized defense to overcome.

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