In Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series on Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers exposed many flaws in the Denver Nuggets’ defence. Damian Lillard had another big-time playoff effort, scoring 34 points and dishing out 13 assists to lead Portland to a 123-109 victory.
As good as the Nuggets’ offence is, failing to limit Lillard and the rest of an experienced Blazers squad will make it difficult for them to stay in the series moving forward. Because Portland’s offence revolves upon their top point guard, Facundo Campazzo, the Nuggets’ starting point guard, is the key to their defence.
Last offseason, the Denver Nuggets struck gold by acquiring Campazzo, a multiple-time EuroLeague winner who has made a strong argument to be named to an All-Rookie team when award season arrives later in the playoffs.
Despite the fact that this is his first season in the NBA and he is still considered a rookie, he is 30-years-old and has spent more than a decade playing professional basketball overseas. His game reflects that experience. After star point guard Jamal Murray’s season-ending ACL injury in early April, he has stepped in well at the starting point guard position. In the 65 games he has played this season, he has made it clear to the league that he is a threat to which teams must pay attention.
Despite his 5-foot-10 stature, the Argentinian guard’s defence has a Patrick Beverly-like edge to it that is effective in breaking opponents’ patterns. Over a recent five-game run, he had 17 thefts, demonstrating his ability to create possessions and win respect from his offensive opponents.
Because one of the league’s most dangerous scorers, Lillard, stands in their way, continuing to be the disruptive defender that he has been will be critical if the Denver Nuggets are to move to the second round of the playoffs.
Despite Murray’s injury, the Nuggets had a strong finish to the season, finishing as the third seed in a congested Western Conference. The Blazers have had their ups and downs this season, but one thing stays constant: they feature one of the league’s most dangerous backcourts.
In Game 1, Lillard and C.J. McCollum reminded fans that they are both playoff veterans with the ability to score in a variety of ways, but it is Lillard, as one of the league’s best scorers and most clutch playoff performers, who poses the most threat.
When it comes to his skills, Damian Lillard has nothing left to prove. Over the course of his nine-year career, he has been an All-Star six times, made the All-NBA team five times, and led the Trail Blazers to numerous deep playoff runs.
He’s one of the NBA’s most dangerous offensive threats and most accurate long-range shooters. There aren’t many defenders in the league that want to take on the task of protecting one of the game’s most dangerous offensive threats, but Campazzo appears to be up to the task after having a taste of it in the first battle.
One of the most noticeable differences between Lillard and Campazzo is their speed. Because Lillard is so effective from beyond the arc and inside the paint, it’s difficult for defenders to know how close they should press such a versatile player as Dame D.O.L.L.A. In Game 1, Campazzo struggled to keep his focus on Lillard, who frequently broke through his on-ball defence and either hit a jump shot, drew a foul, or handed it to a teammate for an easy bucket.
Campazzo appeared to be able to hold his own in previous games with Lillard this season, defending the Portland point guard on the ball while maintaining a hand in his face at all times. Back cuts and give-and-gos, on the other hand, are some of Lillard’s most effective movements, and they often work against less athletic players like Campazzo.
A Jusuf Nurkic on-ball screen for Damian Lillard a few feet behind the top of the key was one of the Blazers’ most popular strategies in Game 1. Nurkic did an excellent job of containing Campazzo and keeping him away from Lillard. This compels Nikola Jokic to choose between Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic, who is more faster than the MVP candidate and has the authority to shoot.
Lillard has the option of shooting a deep, open three or running past Jokic and finishing at the hoop or kicking it out to the perimeter. On Saturday, the Nuggets’ communication was lacking, as it appeared like there was no set game plan for Lillard once he got past his defender. Several of these situations were difficult for Jokic to read, resulting in many easy buckets for the Blazers.
If the Nuggets want to halt another Dame barrage in Game 2, Michael Malone will have to find a way to maintain a defender between Dame and the hoop while also not allowing him to pull up for a three-pointer.
In Game 1, Lillard only shot 40 percent from the field, but he hit all nine of his free throw attempts. He only had four points in the paint, but if he hadn’t been so focused on generating opportunities for his teammates, that total would have been much higher.
His 13 assists assisted six Portland players in scoring in double figures, making it a little more difficult for Nuggets coaches to pinpoint defence problems and remedies. If the other team’s entire lineup is scoring, there’s likely more than one thing that has to be changed.
Although the entire squad needs to improve their defence, Campazzo will have his hands full this series. I expect the Nuggets to come out in Game 2 with a damage control plan for Lillard and for Campazzo to have a more effective presence on the defensive end of the court, as he isn’t the type of player to take a beating laying down.
He’ll have to put pressure on Lillard and compel him to make mistakes, which he didn’t do much of in Game 1. If that trend continues in Game 2, the Nuggets will have a strong chance of tying the series.