The Denver Nuggets squaring off against the Portland Trail Blazers is decidedly fourth among this season’s conference semifinal matchups, but it’s nobody’s ugly stepchild.
The other Western Conference clash between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets just happens to be the rematch everyone coveted when the season began while the East’s semis have been highly anticipated for months since the four top contenders separated themselves before Santa’s elves started making toys for the Christmas holiday rush.
Denver and Portland, teams that ended up separated by a single game in the Northwest, the league’s top division, haven’t had much playoff success over the past few decades. The Nuggets last made the conference finals in 2009 and have never reached the NBA Finals. The Blazers are looking to reach the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000.
This is an opportunity to see point center Nikola Jokic and elite shooter Damian LIllard on the big stage. It’s a chance to see talented young guards Jamal Murray and C.J. McCollum take the next step in their progression.
Consider Denver-Portland the surprise third runner-up in your favorite talent competition or pageant and count on the teams putting on a good show.
After a disappointing first round that featured six series ending in five or fewer games and only one going seven, the eight remaining teams should make up for the slow start to this year’s postseason. The Celtics immediately won a game in Milwaukee to steal home-court advantage from a Bucks team that finished with the league’s best record. The 76ers gained a split of their first two games in Toronto, winning in Canada for the first time since 2012 to increase the likelihood of a long series.
The first chapter of Golden State-Houston was too controversial for my taste since no one wants to see officiating become such a huge part of the story. But Game 1 was separated by a bucket with 40 seconds left. It took an immense 3-pointer from Stephen Curry, his first big moment of an otherwise disappointing postseason, to pick up a win.
If guys spent more time concentrating on their follow-through instead of attempting to sell calls, we’d probably see higher shooting percentages, but Kevin Durant and James Harden did finish with 35 points apiece.
If we’re grading Game 1’s, what the Nuggets and Blazers delivered can finish no worse than second behind Warriors-Rockets and snapped an 11-0 run for the ‘under’ in NBA playoff series openers. Denver held serve at home as a four-point favorite in a 121-113 win fueled by Jokic’s 37 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Paul Millsap, the only Denver player with significant playoff experience, compared him to Tom Brady, commenting that “he’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads.”
While the Eastern Conference has versatile big men in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Al Horford alive, Jokic is a unicorn out West. Golden State lost DeMarcus Cousins in Game 2 of the first round, so there are no shot-creating centers left outside of Denver’s 7-foot MVP candidate. While the Golden State-Houston winner will be the favorite in the Western Conference finals, a Nuggets team led by a healthy Jokic would be a difficult matchup since it would require teams who are best equipped to go small to match up with a player whose size as a major asset.
Denver opened the series as a slight favorite (-145) over the Trail Blazers (+125), who can still get even in the series and have an advantage in bringing fresher legs into Game 2 since the Nuggets took seven games to dispose of the San Antonio Spurs. Portland beat Oklahoma City in five games on an epic 37-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer from Lillard that capped a 50-point night while cementing his superstar status in a league in which he’d been best known for being an All-Star snub in consecutive years. He was named First Team All-NBA last season and should earn that same honor after averaging nearly 26 points per game.
Here are a couple of plays for this week’s playoffs:
Trail Blazers +3.5 at Nuggets (Wednesday): From a value standpoint, in backing the Trail Blazers to win the series since I’m picking them to win Wednesday’s Game 2 outright is something you should consider. Portland was 14-1 to win the West and 40-1 to win the NBA title, making them the biggest long shot remaining in the field. Take the points with the Blazers in Denver.
Portland is perfect in the Moda Center this postseason and can get back even in the series even if it falls behind 2-0, so even though it has dropped seven of eight against Denver dating back to last season entering Game 2, I like its chances of a comeback so long as Enes Kanter can continue playing through shoulder pain. The Blazers need his size against Jokic. TRAIL BLAZERS
Raptors at 76ers, Total 215 (Thursday): My other recommendation for this week is to load up on the Game 3 under in Raptors-76ers. Philadelphia played the fastest-paced series of the first round against Brooklyn but has failed to crack 100 points against Toronto despite leaving Scotiabank Arena with a split.
The 76ers struggle to get out in transition against the Raptors’ size and athleticism, and even being more comfortable at home won’t allow them to get out and run the way they like. Oddsmakers set this total in the 220’s for Games 1 and 2 and have adjusted the number to 215 for Game 3, but it’s still likely to be too high a bar. Ride the low-side. UNDER
Last week: 1-1
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