The Trail Blazers wasted little time establishing themselves as a playoff team in a must-win game against the Denver Nuggets Sunday night in Moda Center.
When the first quarter ended, it was pretty obvious that there was no way these playoffs were going to happen without Portland playing a role.
The Blazers led 43-22 over the usual Nuggets’ starting lineup, hitting 60 percent of their shots from the field and from three-point range. Denver, not needing to win this game for any particular reason, cut way back on the starters’ playing time, but in that first quarter it was real vs. real.
The only question after that was about seeding – and who the teams would play. And at the end of the night, it worked out they would play each other – just as they did in 2019, when the Blazers posted a memorable Game 7 win to advance to the Western Conference finals.
This season, the Nuggets took the first two games between the teams, but by a total of only six points and with Denver guard Jamal Murray out of action with a knee injury, it shapes up as an entertaining series that could go the distance again.
“I think they're a different team now.” Damian Lillard said. “I think we also are a different team. A lot of different players, but I think our ability to do that is just as strong, if not stronger, with the team that we have now.
“I think what we do have mentally is just that -- knowing that we're capable of going in and doing it, you know going in and winning the game on the road or winning multiple games on the road. And also winning a big one on the road, if we have to.
“We know that we're capable, you know. Our team is still led by me and CJ. We know we’re comfortable knowing that we've experienced it and we've done it before."
There is no question that the man who makes the Nuggets go, Nikola Jokic, is the leading candidate to win the league’s NBA award.
“Jokic is an even better player now,” Lillard said. “You know he was great then, but he's a better player now. I feel like they're a deeper team now, so you know we’ve got our hands full.
“But it's a good matchup for us and one that we feel like we're more than capable of winning, so we just have to rest up and be ready.”
Terry Stotts knows that the result of the game Sunday is not any indication of what the series will be like.
“It's going to be a competitive series,” he said. “Obviously, this game was not indicative of either team. Last time we played them was a one-point game. So, that was competitive. It should be pretty interesting.”