With Damian Lillard’s stunning 37-foot game winner in game five against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Trailblazers now await the winner of the Nuggets and Spurs series, which is now headed for game seven on Saturday. The series has flipped back and forth with each team taking control for a couple of games before losing momentum. This game seven will come down to several key factors that will help separate these two closely talented teams. Here are some key takeaways from the series and the impact they will have on facing Portland next round:
Nikola Jokic has proven to be a “Superstar”: Nikola Jokic had the best season of his career, averaging 20.1 points per, 10.8 rebounds, with 7.2 assists, continuing to prove to be the Nugget’s franchise player. He also surprised many by leading the Nuggets to a record of 54-28, which was good enough for second in the Western Conference only behind the Warriors. Although Jokic grabbed 14 rebounds and dished out 14 assists in game one, he was only able to score 10 points in a 101-96 loss to the Spurs. After that, he has averaged 26.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game, scoring 43 points in a game six 120-103 loss. Jokic has shown that he can impact the game in multiple ways in both the regular season as well as the playoffs. Even when he is only scoring 10 points he can get his teammates involved and control the glass. The Nuggets have found their franchise player and need to do everything they can to keep improving the roster around him.
Derrick White may just be the Spurs’ best player: With the “Big Three” era being over and Kawhi Leonard being dished out to Toronto, the Spurs need to find their next franchise player. Derrick White was the Spurs first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and only played in 17 games his rookie year due to several injuries, but has made a jump his sophomore year, starting 55 out of his 67 games played this year. White is averaging 17.0 points on 57.5% shooting during the six games so far this series, but he has been even more impressive on the defensive side of the ball. White is featured in six out of the top ten Spurs lineups in defensive rating (Only line-ups that have played 5 or more minutes). He has also helped to force all three of Denver’s top guards, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton to have poor games throughout the series, including games where they were only able to score 8 points, 6 points, and 2 points respectively. If the Spurs are able to advance, Damian Lillard will have trouble scoring the ball with Derrick White guarding him throughout the series.
Miscellaneous: Either team in this series could challenge the Trailblazers in round two, having a legit shot to get to the Western Conference Finals. No matter which team advances, there is familiarity with the Trailblazers as five players, two from the Nuggets, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee, as well as three from the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, and Dante Cunningham, are all former Trailblazers. DeMar DeRozan never found success during the playoffs with Toronto, and his struggles have continued. With DeRozan off the court, the Spurs have performed better, having improved offensive and defensive ratings as well as a higher shooting percentage. Both teams have very deep line-ups, it will interesting to see if and how they will change in game seven.
My Takes: This series has proved to be entertaining as well as competitive and gave me several new takes on not only both teams, but the whole NBA. When looking at each team’s roster, on paper, the Nuggets have a clear advantage in overall skill, but one factor that is commonly overlooked is how important a great coach is. Gregg Popovich has always been an amazing coach in his tenure with the Spurs, winning 5 NBA Championships and making the playoffs 22 out of 23 seasons, but this year many thought the Spurs and coach Popovich’s streak would end with DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the team. They exceeded expectations and have given themselves a legit shot at upsetting the second-seeded Nuggets. Although the Nuggets may be very talented, they are also extremely young and inexperienced, before real playoff success comes, they may need some more experience. The last take I have from this series is that the NBA is in good hands for the future. We have superstars in the making on both of these teams, and there should continue to be exciting basketball for years to come. No matter who wins this series, it will be interesting to see the second round match-up with the Trailblazers and how it pans out.