Which version of the Trail Blazers is going to show up tonight for the third game of their playoff series against the Denver Nuggets?

Will the 8,000 mostly vaccinated fans in Moda Center see the locked-in Blazers that won 10 of their last 12 regular season games and beat the Nuggets in their first game in Denver? Or the lackadaisical and frustrated team that lost nine of 11 games in April and was manhandled by the Nuggets in Game 2?

If we get the Game 1 version of the Blazers, Portland is going to be pretty happy. In that contest, superstar Damian Lillard and his squad looked ultra-focused, picking apart presumptive league MVP Nikola Jokic in the pick-and-roll and holding him to only a single assist on the defensive side of the ball. The Blazers parlayed solid performances from Lillard, CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Carmelo Anthony into a 59-36 scoring advantage over the last 20 minutes as they cruised to a 123-109 win.

Fast forward to Game 2 and the matchup could not have looked more different. The Nuggets ramped up their physicality, leading to 52 combined personal fouls and multiple flagrants. Repeated referee whistles generated a stilted tempo that seemed to throw the Blazers out of whack.

Blazers guard Norman Powell acknowledged Denver’s hustle advantage: “They were physical, they were getting 50/50 balls, getting on the ground—that’s what we got to do. We’ve got to get scrappy and dirty like they were.”

The hustle advantage, combined with poor performances from Game 1 stalwarts Anthony and Nurkic, led to a 128-109 blowout loss.

The crowd half-packing Moda Center tonight—by far the largest attendance the Blazers have enjoyed since last March—will give the team a boost. But a look at the first two games shows three pivotal on-court flaws the Blazers must fix to ensure the crowd’s energy is not wasted.

Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers
Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

Clean up the turnovers

The Blazers offense is a math equation. They are second in 3-point field goal attempts, commit the fewest turnovers, and grab the second-most offensive rebounds of all NBA teams (all stats per 100 possessions). Portland’s plan of attack is predicated on creating more scoring opportunities than their opponents and using each opportunity to score 3 points whenever possible. Over time, that strategy added up to 117.1 points per 100 possessions—second only to the Brooklyn Nets.

Uncharacteristically, the Blazers turned the ball over 21 times and failed to win the offensive rebounding battle in Game 2. They shot an excellent 48.5% on 33 3-point attempts, but shooting accuracy could not compensate for wasting 21 scoring opportunities. Tightening up possession management will be a major priority for head coach Terry Stotts tonight. McCollum, who created a damning four first-half turnovers, could especially stand to wash off the butterfingers.

Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers
Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

Try some defensive rotations

Stotts and his staff have plenty of low-hanging fruit to pick defensively. The Blazers aren’t going to eliminate Jokic’s playmaking entirely—he’s going to win MVP for a reason and nobody in the league can challenge his jarringly ridiculous “Sombor Shuffle.” But Jokic’s excellence does not give Portland carte blanche to abandon every defensive fundamental imaginable.

That Blazers guards (and Anthony) will inevitably allow a free path to the rim on occasion does not mean Portland’s defense must desperately overreact and collapse into the lane, destroying any hope of compensatory rotations. Or just ignore open 3-point shooters entirely.

Nurkic can certainly do better against Jokic than fouling out with nine minutes to go in the game, but Portland’s ability to keep the Nuggets’ role players from cashing in on open looks will likely be the deciding factor. We’ve already seen the proof of concept: In Game 1, Nuggets other than Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. combined for only 50 points. In Game 2, they scored 72. The Nuggets won by 19. Do the math.

Norman Powell vs. the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers
Norman Powell vs. the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

What about Norman Powell?

The high-energy Powell has spent much of the series relegated to a pressure release valve role, wandering around the weak side waiting for a pass when the Nuggets swallow up Lillard and McCollum’s shot opportunities. Unfortunately, the Blazers haven’t exactly excelled at actually getting Powell the ball:

That is mostly fine when Lillard is doing his usual bombs-away-from-Gresham routine. But in the second half of Game 2, Nuggets coach Michael Malone switched Aaron Gordon on to Lillard. Dame responded by shooting 2 of 9 from the field for the half. Yikes.

For his part, Lillard seems unconcerned about this adjustment; the ever-stoic Dame told reporters, “We’ll see,” when asked if Malone found something special in the Gordon-on-Lillard matchup.

Regardless of Lillard’s confidence, it would be wise to have a backup plan in the event that Gordon does continue to bother Lillard and McCollum struggles as the second option. Stotts can more aggressively integrate Powell as a primary scorer to give the Blazers some extra punch and take advantage of some of Denver’s secondary defenders. Suggestions of how to better utilize Norm range from incorporating him in the pick-and-roll, to having him cut more aggressively to the rim, to looking for more transition opportunities.

Damian Lillard launches from Boulder as the Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard launches from Boulder as the Trail Blazers face the Denver Nuggets in first round of playoffs on May 24, 2021. Bruce Ely / Trail Blazers

Who is going to win the series?

It’d be imprudent to assume that either of the first two games of the series foretell disaster for either team. Lillard said yesterday: “After the first game, everyone’s going to say we’re the greatest team in the world. After the second game, everyone’s going to say they’re the better team and they figured it out. That’s how the series goes.”

The bottom line is that the Blazers have the talent to offset the Nuggets’ Game 2 adjustments. They can easily score enough to keep pace with the Nuggets; eliminating sloppy turnovers and raising the bar on defense from “truly atrocious” to “slightly below average” are reasonable expectations. They can absolutely win tonight with a solid game plan and more consistent effort than we saw on Monday.

The question now, for the Blazers, is whether Stotts, Lillard and the rest of the team can identify and implement the marginal advantages they hold over the Nuggets. In Game 1, the Blazers proved they have the talent to beat the Nuggets. In Game 2, the Nuggets proved they can rattle the Blazers into abandoning those advantages.

The series, and likely the future of the Blazers roster, will come down to which teams show up over the next five games. No pressure.