Moore: Two Things Denver Has Done vs. Portland That OKC Never Did

Moore: Two Things Denver Has Done vs. Portland That OKC Never Did article feature image

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone

  • The Denver Nuggets evened their series against the Portland Trailblazers with a Game 4 road victory.
  • Matt Moore takes a look at two strategic shifts Denver has made to turn this into a three-game series.


Enes Kanter has been a Portland hero in these playoffs. Playing with a bad shoulder, against his old team that said he couldn’t be on the floor, Kanter helped lead the Blazers past OKC — or at least, he didn’t slow down the car that Damian Lillard was driving as it leaped over a 50-foot-long fire pit.

He is said to be in tears from the pain and wants you to know just how hurt he is.

He’s also retweeted the following:

So everything for Kanter is clearly difficult with his shoulder injury, and that’s before he starts Ramadan and the required fasting. Which, by the way, he’s tweeted about:

So Enes Kanter is really up against it. In related news, the Nuggets are making him into more and more of a liability.

In the third quarter of Game 4, the Nuggets attacked Kanter on five of their first six possessions.

They put him in pick and roll with Nikola Jokic as the ball-handler, which is just mean:

They targeted him when he got lost in transition and left his man open:

They put him in space trying to recover on Jokic on the roll:

They exploited his lack of mobility on this floater:

In the Blazers’ Game 2 win in Denver, Kanter had an 84.6 defensive rating, which is excellent. In Game 4, he had a game-worst 128.8 defensive rating, and the trend is heading rapidly in that direction.

Kanter is injured, to be sure, but he also is, and always has been, a horrendous defender. Oklahoma City never challenged him in its first-round series, letting him off the hook by settling. Denver instead is consistently finding new ways to attack. Kanter is good when he’s prepped to contain, especially with Jamal Murray, who dribbles himself constantly into trouble and doesn’t have elite speed on the edge:

But when you put Kanter in space like in the above sequences, there’s just not much he can do.  He now has a negative net rating in three of the four games. If Denver keeps exploiting that, its scoring will increase.

BETTING ANGLE: Third quarters. Denver has a +13.7 net rating this series in the third quarter, second-best of all teams in the second round. Denver comes out of halftime attacking — and attacking Kanter, in particular. There’s no real counter because Zach Collins has been good in this series but he’s still a negative overall; he’s just not ready.


Michael Malone isn’t hiding it. The Nuggets aren’t prideful with how they’re defending Damian Lillard.

“In that first round, he averaged 33 a game. He hit 8 threes that were 30 feet away or more from the basket. I give our coaching staff, Wes Unseld, our defensive coordinator, our preparation we put into it, and learning all the things that gave OKC trouble. Their pickup points, their bigs not being up, not being into the ball, letting him reject. He had a lot of space in that series we felt, and that’s not a knock on OKC, we just wanted to be a little bit better. We didn’t want him having 33 a night.”

The Thunder thought they could keep their standard tactics on Lillard and handle him one-on-one. Lillard gave them the nickel in a 5-game closeout from 37 feet after a spectacular series.

Lillard has had two monster games vs. the Nuggets: a 39-point Game 1 and a 28-point Game 4. And yet both of those games, it never really felt all that impactful. It doesn’t feel like Lillard is killing Denver, it feels like he’s life support for their offense at times.

Denver has thrown a blitz at Lillard from the jump. One of the surprising things about the Nuggets is that they found Nikola Jokic is more comfortable defending pick and roll at the level of the screen, getting up into the ball-handler’s space. He has quick feet and hands, and is able to pressure. He’s got good timing on recovery.

And that, along with sending Lillard’s man with him to blitz, has helped slow down the Blazers offense in this series.

With Millsap covering the rolling Kanter, when they pressure him, Lillard releases to McCollum, and Harris spikes the lane:

So much of it is on Lillard’s man. Here Torrey Craig is distracted for just a second and lets the screen from Kanter catch him off guard. Lillard easily splits the double with the pass:

What’s interesting is that the Nuggets have extended that coverage. They’re doing the same thing to CJ McCollum, who is having an incredible series, because he’s just smooth enough to do stuff like this:

Lillard is too, which is partly why he’s still scoring. The Nuggets aren’t shutting down Lillard; they’re slowing him down and making it harder for Portland. This is an offensive-centric series. Every point counts. The best adjustment came in Game 4. Seth Curry had 16 first-half points, the kind of bench production from marginal players that Denver can’t afford, especially on the road. So in the second half, they started blitzing Curry the same way:

Curry finishes 0-for-1 with zero points in the second half of Game 4.

With guys like Lillard and McCollum, you’re just trying to make them work. The Nuggets want this series to be on the backs of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, who are often open or matched up against Jamal Murray, a straight-up bad defender. OKC dared Lillard to beat them. He did.

The Nuggets are determined that if Lillard beats them, it’s going to be against their best efforts.

BETTING ANGLE: There’s probably reason to believe Denver will get a good defensive performance once out of these last three games, making the Blazers’ team total under, particularly in the potentially two games in Denver, have value.