“We want him to score and not get his teammates involved,” Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic said. “When he scores, I think we have a better chance. The fact he isn’t involving all his teammates, he gets more dangerous when he’s in and out. I think we feel more comfortable when he scores 30 or 40 and try to lock in on all the other guys to not have a big game.”
Jokic did exactly that, dropping 34 points on 14-of-27 shooting; but along with it, he was missing a key element to his game that has made him such a dominant offensive player. Jokic finished with just one assist, a playoff career low, as the visiting Blazers leaned on their scheme to take Saturday’s Game 1 123-109.
Nurkic clarified with a laugh that the Blazers don’t actually want Jokic to score, but the plan was clear. With the Nuggets short-handed, missing primary scorers Jamal Murray and Will Barton, Portland resisted sending double-teams at Jokic, instead playing him straight up with a single defender the entire game.
“When they’re at their best, he’s setting the table, he’s dominating the game as a playmaker. As a scorer, he’s having his way,” Damian Lillard said. “You know a guy as good as he is, an MVP candidate — the MVP, in my opinion — you know he’s going to play well. He’s going to do what he does, but you have to try to take something away.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Nuggets shot just 1-for-10 on passes from Jokic in Game 1. Michael Porter Jr. added 25 points and Aaron Gordon had 16, but the Nuggets’ offense is at its most efficient when Jokic is playing point center, orchestrating the offense on multiple levels.
“They were playing me straight up,” Jokic said. “They were going under pick-and-rolls. They didn’t help much on my drives or post-ups. It was that kind of night.
“They did a good job. They made me work for it on every possession. They kind of took other guys out. I couldn’t get other guys involved, maybe. Just because of the assists, I’m saying that.”
On the flip side, the Nuggets trapped and blitzed Lillard, trying to force the ball out of his hands. And by contrast, Lillard’s teammates shot 13-of-15 on passes from him, including 6-of-7 from 3. Lillard scored 34 points and added 13 assists, accounting for 54% of Portland’s 123 points. Lillard found his spots to pull up for dagger 3s, as he does, but he was intent on spreading the ball around and setting a positive tone for ball movement.
Multiple Blazers had solid scoring nights as a result, including Carmelo Anthony, who heard boos in another return to Denver, where he played the first seven seasons of his career.
“It’s cool, man. I love them too. I love those guys too. It’s been what, almost 10 years now since I’ve been here?” Anthony said. “The love is there. They love me; they hate me. I can’t do nothing about that. Just go out there and smile, enjoy myself and have fun. Whatever they have to say, let them say it. It’s not my concern.”
“What else can they do?” Anthony added regarding the reception. “I don’t know what it is. I gave my all here for 7½ years. I’ve never said anything bad about Denver, about fans, the organization, players. I never complained. I took everything on the chin even when it wasn’t my fault.”
Anthony hit four first-half 3s and finished with 18 points in 22 minutes as he secured his first win in Denver as a member of the visiting team.
“I didn’t even know that,” Anthony said, “that this was the first win since I was traded. Not even something I even thought about. Someone told me that in the locker room after the game. But I’ll take it. I’ll take my first win being Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs.”
The Blazers have a 1-0 series lead in hand, stealing home-court advantage with the win, but they expect the Nuggets to come with plenty of adjustments to rediscover their offensive balance in Game 2 on Monday.
“It’s about winning the series,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “It’s not about winning home court.”