The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend and the Portland Trail Blazers will take on the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round in a rematch of the 2019 Western Conference Semifinals.
In what will be one of the headlining series during the first rounds, there are many factors that swing the series one way or another.
Here are five bold predictions for the highly-anticipated series.
1. Three Blazers starters average 40+ minutes
To end the regular season winning ten-of-twelve games, Terry Stotts shortened his rotation to just eight players and heavily relied on his starting lineup of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Normal Powell, Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkić. In fact, that five-man lineup has a 13.4 net rating in 370 minutes.
With the lack of a true backup point guard on the roster (sorry Anfernee Simons), expect to see both Lillard and McCollum playing over 40 minutes in games that are winnable during the fourth quarter. Whenever Lillard rests, McCollum will play point guard and run the offense.
Then, the Blazers love having a dynamic two-guard lineup so I'd be surprised to see more than a handful of minutes that do not include two of Lillard, McCollum and Powell on the floor.
Robert Covington could approach averaging 40 minutes a game if Powell does not considering Derrick Jones Jr., the team's second-best perimeter defender, has received numerous DNP's by Stotts. One of Powell or Covington will play 40+ minutes in most of the games.
2. Carmelo Anthony gets his first win in Denver
Over ten years ago, Carmelo Anthony forced his way out Denver and to New York in a blockbuster trade. Since then. Anthony has lost all ten games played at Denver as the road team.
In ten contests, Melo has averaged 19.88 points on 45.9% shooting at Denver since the trade. He does technically have one win as the away team against Denver, but it was in the Orlando bubble last summer so it doesn't count.
He now gets at least two opportunities to win at Denver for the first time on the biggest stage. Considering his knack for hitting clutch shots, perhaps he even hits a dagger in the last two-minutes to clinch the win.
3. Jusuf Nurkić has his best career playoff series
As a former Denver Nugget, this series has to be personal for Nurk. The Denver front office traded him along with a first-round pick for Mason Plumlee in 2017.
Considering Nikola Jokić turned out to be an MVP-caliber player, trading away Nurkić was the right call but players do not forget teams that gave up on them.
Nurk famously wished them a happy summer after essentially eliminating the Nuggets from playoff contention in 2017 and Rip City is hoping for a repeat in a few weeks.
However, in playoff games Nurkić has suited up for, the Blazers are 1-9 with the lone win coming against the Lakers in Game 1 last summer. Nurkić only played one game in 2017 due to a leg injury and then was swept in 2018 by Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
In those ten games, he has averaged 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game on 45.5% shooting. If Portland wants to win, he needs to play like he closed the regular season, where he averaged 14.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.3 blocks on 56.6% shooting over Portland's final ten games.
4. Aaron Gordon makes the Blazers regret not trading for him
For years, Aaron Gordon was linked to the Trail Blazers as a potential trade target with Damian Lillard reportedly loving his game.
Well, at the trade deadline, Denver pulled the trigger on Gordon and the Blazers traded for Normal Powell instead. Powell has been lights out for Portland this season but lacks the size and ability to guard larger players that Gordon possesses.
I expect at least one game where Gordon makes a big play down the stretch of a game, like switching onto Lillard or McCollum, to allow Denver to escape with a victory.
5. Portland wins the series in 6 games
Last time these two teams matched up in the postseason, Portland won it in seven games to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years.
Fast forward two years later, the Blazers get the job done in one less game. Carmelo Anthony gets his win in Devner during either Game 1 or Game 2, and then the Blazers take care of homecourt eventually winning the sixth game in front of a homecrowd to advance to the second round.
Denver has plenty of talent, but a lack of elite defensive guards to slow down Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will be the difference in the series.
As a wise man once said, "Blazers in six."