Nikola Jokic remembers how it felt. Paul Millsap, too.
In Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals in 2019, the Denver Nuggets had a 17-point lead in the first half when CJ McCollum caught fire. The Trail Blazers guard pulled off one of his most impressive and gutsy performances as he dropped 37 points as the Blazers downed the Nuggets 100-96 to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2000.
Now, the two teams will meet in the NBA playoffs once again.
After Portland took down Denver 132-116 Sunday night to secure the Western Conference’s last guaranteed playoff spot, the six-seeded Blazers now have set a date with the familiar opponent, the third-seeded Nuggets.
As Denver forward Paul Millsap noted, the two teams aren’t the same ones that took the court in May 2019.
“This year’s different,” Millsap said following Sunday’s regular-season finale. “Different lineup, different things on the line...
The Nuggets have several new faces. Denver added JaVale McGee in a deal with the Cavaliers in March. The Nuggets made one of the biggest blockbuster deals at the NBA’s trade deadline in trading for Aaron Gordon. Jamal Murray is out indefinitely after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL.
As Millsap points out, the Nuggets also have their MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic.
“We got the MVP of the league,” Millsap said. “That’s the main thing. This year, we’ve got a lot of talented guys... I think we’re well-prepared.”
As for Portland, its squad has changed over the last two years as well. There’s no Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless in the starting lineup or Rodney Hood to come off the bench. Neither Norman Powell or Carmelo Anthony were members of the Trail Blazers, and Jusuf Nurkic was sidelined with a broken leg during the Blazers-Nuggets 2019 series.
None of those things matter to Jokic, though. He says he didn't really care who Denver’s opponent was in the first round, but knew a Portland re-match was a possibility.
“I still don’t really care who is on the opposite side,” Jokic said. “We need to take care of Denver Nuggets. We need to be better. So, it’s going to be rematch, but they don’t have the same team … Maybe their core is kind of the same, but everything else is not the same.”
While the Blazers cruised by the Nuggets on Sunday in the regular-season finale, Denver didn’t have much to play for. Portland played with a sense of urgency as it avoided the play-in tournament with a win over Denver.
That won’t likely be the case next time the two teams meet at Ball Arena in the first-round of the 2021 NBA playoffs.
“It was a must-win game for them and that’s how they played,” Jokic said postgame.
With a couple extra days off before post-season play begins, the Nuggets will look to hone in on their game plan to keep the series competitive, and lengthy. Millsap says that will be key for Denver in finding success against Portland's potent offensive attack.
“Just being disciplined in the game plan," he said. "Just making sure that we’re playing with energy like we have all year. Just make sure we stay together.”