The Joker versus Dame. Versatile big man against prodigious scorer.
They are two big reasons why Denver and Portland are meeting in the Western Conference semifinals as the series begins Monday in the Mile High City.
Nikola Jokic: The 7-foot, do-it-all center for the Nuggets who guided them to a Game 7 victory over San Antonio with another triple-double.
Damian Lillard: The gifted shooter who lifted the Blazers to a series win over Oklahoma City by erupting for 50 points in Game 5, including the game-winner at the buzzer.
A featured attraction in what should be a formidable series.
“Damian Lillard right now is playing at another level,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
Same with his guy, who’s nicknamed The Joker because he’s constantly filled with surprises.
“Couldn’t be happier for Nikola, couldn’t be prouder for Nikola,” said Malone, whose second-seeded squad advanced in the postseason for the first time in a decade. “Because all of his hard work has allowed him to go on the national stage and hopefully people take notice of what he’s doing, because it’s been remarkable.”
Jokic followed up his All-Star season with a playoff debut for the ages. He averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists against the Spurs. In Game 7 on Saturday, Jokic was completely drained after playing more than 43 minutes and posting his second triple-double of the series during a 90-86 win.
“I think the team expected me to do something,” Jokic said. “So I was just trying to go out there and play my best basketball possible.”
Lillard averaged 33 points in the Thunder series. His backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, chipped in 24.4 points.
“A lot of people thought they would beat us,” Lillard said of the Thunder. “We answered the call in the first round. We did what we were supposed to do. We handled our business. We dominated the series. I think that’s what feels the best — we were sharp in everything that we did.”
One thing the third-seeded Blazers have on their side heading into Round 2: rest. The Blazers were off for two days and practiced for two before flying to Denver early Sunday. Blazers coach Terry Stotts compared getting up to speed on short notice to cramming for a test.
Then again, they know each other well.
Denver had a 3-1 advantage over Portland in the regular season. The Blazers could be without Enes Kanter, whose status for the second round of the playoffs remains uncertain because of a shoulder injury. They’re already missing Jusuf Nurkic after he broke his leg in an overtime victory at home over the Brooklyn Nets on March 25.
Here are things to know going into the series:
On Feb. 13, 2017, Denver sent Nurkic to the Blazers as part of a deal for Mason Plumlee. It’s a trade that’s benefited both teams.
Nurkic helped the Blazers to the playoffs in ’17 and again last season. He was averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds this season before being hurt.
For Denver, the trade allowed the team to run the offense more through Jokic, who’s blossomed over the past three seasons. Plumlee has been a valuable backup for Denver as well.
In another deal, the Nuggets acquired guard Will Barton from the Blazers in 2015.
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM
The Blazers and Nuggets are meeting for a third time in the postseason, with both winning one series. Denver beat Portland 3-1 in the first round in 1986, while Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas led the Blazers to a 4-2 series win in 1977 on their way to an NBA title.
Since making the Western Conference finals in 2009, the Nuggets have been eliminated in the first round on four occasions. This was their first playoff appearance in six seasons.
“We knew we were a special team,” Gary Harris said.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
The Nuggets went an NBA-best 34-7 at home in the regular season. The noise helped in Game 7, with the arena so loud that Spurs players couldn’t hear coach Gregg Popovich imploring his team to foul in the waning seconds.
“Our fans have shown up and made this an incredibly difficult place to play,” Malone said.
YOUNG AT HEART
The Nuggets are the youngest team in the West side of the bracket with an average age of 24.9 years. Portland is right behind at 25.6.
“At the end of the day, it’s just basketball,” said Denver guard Jamal Murray, who’s dealing with a sore shoulder and leg.