Blazers prep for oxygen debt, Nuggets' defense and, oh, yeah, Nikola Jokic
DENVER — Center Enes Kanter is a "maybe," the Mile High City's thin air is a challenge, and so are the Denver Nuggets as the Trail Blazers head into the NBA Western Conference semifinals, which begin at 7:30 p.m. PT Monday at Pepsi Center.
Kanter, who suffered a separated left shoulder in Portland's Game-5 first-round close-out victory of Oklahoma City on Tuesday, is listed as questionable for Monday's opener.
"It's (feeling) OK, a little better," the 6-11 Kanter said before Sunday's practice session in Denver. "Not a lot. I could hardly sleep. The trainer says it's questionable. We'll see what happens."
It would be a little surprising if Kanter doesn't play in Game 1. He injured the shoulder in the first half of Tuesday's game against OKC, took a cortisone shot at halftime and finished the game, contributing 13 points and 13 rebounds in 29 minutes.
What will Portland coach Terry Stotts do if Kanter is unavailable?
"We'll see if he is ready to go first," Stotts said, offering no alternatives.
The Blazers, already down starting center Jusuf Nurkic for the season with a broken leg, will have big men Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard available. Both will surely see some duty, anyway, going against Denver center Nikola Jokic, a good bet to be named first-team all-NBA this season.
Jokic, whose name has been mentioned as a potential Most Valuable Player candidate, averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists in the regular season, shooting .511 from the field and .307 from 3-point range.
"He is one of the most-skilled big men in the league," Kanter said. "He has been doing an unbelievable job keeping his teammates together. We have to give extra focus on him."
Collins hasn't started a game all season. Leonard has started only two. It is possible Stotts will use 6-9 Al-Farouq Aminu to guard the 7-foot Jokic for spells during the game.
"Any time a 7-footer can get you a triple-double and not necessarily play well, it says a lot," Collins said about Jokic. "He's a great player, a team guy. Whatever my role is, I'll go out there and perform and try to help this team win."
Jokic averaged 25.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists in three games against Portland.
"He's one of those players you don't know what to take away," Stotts said. "Whatever you take away, he has something else. The key for us is to make things difficult for him and not let him have open looks or easy baskets."
Lillard sounded like a publicist on the Nuggets' payroll when asked about the Trail Blazers' opponent.
"They've been one of the best teams in the league all season long," Lillard said. "They play really well at home. They're coming off a tough seven-game series where they got their feet wet — a lot of them got their first playoff experience. I'm sure they're comfortable now.
"You get pushed to seven games and you come up big, you're going the next round confident. They played well against us in the regular season. It's going to be a challenge for us."
Denver got the No. 2 seed in the West by finishing the regular season 54-28, a game ahead of No. 3 Portland at 53-29.
The Nuggets had the best home record in the NBA at 34-7, two games ahead of the Blazers' 32-9.
The Nuggets disposed of San Antonio 90-86 Saturday night to wrap up their first-round playoff series in seven games. It was the first time in the postseason for the Nuggets since the 2012-13 season and the first time they've won a playoff series since 2008-09.
Denver was 3-1 during the regular season against Portland, losing the final encounter in the final week of the regular season when Nuggets coach Mike Malone chose to rest his three best players — Jokic, power forward Paul Millsap and point guard Jamal Murray.
Murray, a 21-year-old second-year pro out of Kentucky, averaged 18.2 points and 4.8 assists, shooting .437 from the field and .367 on 3-point attempts in the regular season. He averaged 19.0 points and 5.3 assists in the three contests they participated in against the Blazers.
"He's a really good young guard — aggressive, confident," Lillard said. "He has played a huge role in the success of their team. He and Jokic both have had great seasons. If you want to beat this team, you're going to have to keep both of those guys under control."
One of the reasons for Denver's success on the home-court is the city's altitude, which makes it more difficult to breathe when you're running back and forth on a basketball court. The Nuggets are used to it; the opponents have to deal with it.
"It's like a cheat code they're using," Kanter said with a grin. "Every time you come here, you feel out of shape. It's just part of the game. Once you get your first run in, you're fine. That's why two days of practice are important."
Said Leonard: "Once you get through your first wind, you're fine. But getting through the oxygen debt ... that is not fun. It burns, but you get through it."
The Nuggets work at the defensive end, and are particularly strong in defending the 3-point line. Opponents shot an NBA-worst .339 from beyond the arc against them in the regular season.
"It's no fluke they did that," Stotts said. "They're well-coached. They scramble well. They contest shots. "The 3-point shooting is important for everybody in the league right now. We shot it well in some of the games. We just have to work to get good looks."
The Blazers shot 3-pointers at a .327 clip against Denver in the regular season, far off their overall percentage of .359.
Both teams shot well from the field — Portland .483, Denver .490.
In his four appearances against the Nuggets, Lillard averaged 21.3 points — well below his season average of 25.8 — and shot only .371 from the field and .288 from 3-point range.
CJ McCollum averaged 20.0 points and shot .453 from the field and .263 on 3-point attempts.
The Blazers were hot from distance against the Thunder, shooting .405 from beyond the arc in the five games. Lillard averaged 33.0 points, 6.0 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting .461 from the field and .481 from the 3-point line. He was at his best in the series-clincher, going for 50 points while making 17 of 33 shots from the field, including 10 of 18 attempts from 3-point range. Lillard's 10 3's are second-best in NBA playoff history, behind only the 11 made by Golden State's Klay Thompson against the Thunder in 2016.
"After our OKC series," Stotts said, "I don't think anybody is questioning what Damian can do."
McCollum was on against the ,Thunder too, averaging 24.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists, shooting .455 from the field and .447 on 3-point attempts.
The Blazers will be coming off a five-day break. The last time they had that kind of rest was the All-Star break in mid-February, when they had eight days between games.
"When you have as many days off as we've had, you wonder what the rhythm is going to be like," Lillard said. "(The Nuggets) are just going to keep rolling since they just got done Saturday.
"But you never complain about rest. At this point in the season, everybody is a little fatigued, the bodies a little beat up. We're fortunate to have some rest."
Stotts was asked if the playoffs are all about adjustments from game to game.
"Really, they're about whatever team plays better," he said. "It sounds pretty simple. But as you get into a seven-game series, it's less about adjustments and more about teams playing well, about players playing well."
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