Free Picks: Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers, 2021 Western Conference Playoffs Round 1

Denver Nuggets vs Portland Trail Blazers - 2021 NBA Playoffs Round 1
Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers, Thursday June 3, Moda Center

Though it didn’t go the full seven games, the Western Conference first round matchup between the third-seeded Denver Nuggets and the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers still gave us plenty of thrills in the six games it did give us. In the end, the higher seed won, as per usual, with the Nuggets taking care of business in Oregon in Game 6 on Thursday night.

Series Results: Nuggets wins series 4-2

This was one of the series that was expected to be a bit of a back and forth affair, with the Portland Trail Blazers taking the first game by double digits. That was followed by a pair of tight victories for the Nuggets, and then a 20-point triumph for the Blazers to tie the series up before presumptive NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and his Nuggets took the series by the scruff of the neck, winning the final two games in dramatic fashion.

The Nuggets won a double-overtime thriller in Game 5 in the face of a historic performance from Damian Lillard which saw him post 55 points and an NBA-playoff record 12 triples. The veteran point guard was quite literally carrying his team to the finish line, and surely that was not lost on the perennial All-NBA talent.

Portland head coach Terry Stotts said that he has two more years on his deal and expects to be there to run out the string of that contract, but center Jusuf Nurkic, who is also under contract for next season, seemed very uncertain about his future with the club. Lillard was much more coy in his answers, but one would have to think that after four first round playoff exits in the last five years, he is ready to try this thing another way.

Many NBA pundits actually gave the Blazers the advantage in this first round matchup based mostly on Lillard’s credentials—and to be fair to them, they nearly cashed out on that hot take. But unfortunately for them and the state of Oregon, the Nuggets came together and closed out the Blazers in convincing fashion, possibly ending the Lillard era at the Moda Center.

The Nuggets will enter their second round series against the Phoenix Suns with a lot of confidence after surviving an onslaught like the one Dame put on them in Game 5, though the Suns are definitely not short on confidence either, as evidenced by their antics after eliminating the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. From my perspective, the NBA pick for this matchup will depend on whether or not the Joker can dominate Phoenix’s DeAndre Ayton.

Game 1

May 22, 10:30 p.m., Ball Arena

This pair of teams is actually one of a few who are taking on the same team in their first-round playoff series as they did in their regular season finale. While the Portland Trail Blazers were trying to ensure a win to secure the sixth spot, the Denver Nuggets were essentially resting their top guys so that their opponents could do just that, thereby avoiding a first round series against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.

That means that Denver head coach Mike Malone and his staff were more than okay with a first round series against Damian Lillard and the Blazers. That’s a tough player and a tough team, but there’s no comparison to a team with LeBron on it.

The Nuggets do have, arguably, the best player in the NBA this season, in Nikola Jokic. While the Joker played just 17 minutes in that regular season finale, he still put up 21 points against Portland, and in the matchup before that he had 25 points in a win, and in the matchup before that the big Serb had 41 points in another Denver win.

The Blazers may have two seven-footers in Enes Kanter and Jusuf Nurkic, but neither of his Eastern-Mediterranean comrades have been able to find a way to stop Jokic’s unorthodox but somehow smooth offensive game. Jokic’s domination is the leading factor in our decision to make the Nuggets our NBA pick in this matchup, which is basically being marketed as a toss up by most bookmakers.

Portland has been in the bottom 10 in opponent shooting percentage and points per game for most of this campaign, and their defense isn’t getting better all of sudden. While they’re lucky that they won’t have to deal with the likes of Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and PJ Dozier, they still have to deal with Monte Morris, one of the best reserve guards in basketball, and Michael Porter Jr.

MPJ might be one of the scariest offensive threats in the NBA right now. The 22-year-old has been shooting 49 percent from deep since the Blue Arrow went down and he had to step in to replace all of that offensive production. He has shown himself completely capable of doing just that, if not exceeding Murray on the offensive end, which is saying something.

There’s no way Carmelo Anthony is keeping up with this guy at this point in his career, so it will be on Robert Covington to D up on Porter Jr., which should result in a very interesting matchup. Our money is on the young and spry Porter Jr. to run circles around Covington, who is still a quality defender but has lost a bit of his edge this season.

Another factor that should be considered is the starting backcourt of the Nuggets, which is another reason we like this as a top pick. Because of all those backcourt injuries, Austin Rivers has been forced into the starting five for Denver just a few weeks after joining the team. He struggled at first, but he has hit his stride recently.

Other than the finale in which he played only sparingly, Rivers has averaged 14.0 points and 3.5 triples on 49 percent shooting from the floor and 50 percent shooting from deep since May 5th. Rivers is probably the most streaky scorer in the NBA today, so if he can stay hot against the Blazers, it will make Portland success very unlikely.

The suffocating and pesky defense of Facundo Campazzo is also sure to cause Lillard more problems: in just under 12 minutes of total matchup time this season, Lillard went 4-for-15 from the field with three assists and three turnovers when he was defended by the Argentinian Energizer Bunny. Shut down Lillard, and you’ve already won. We’re taking the Nuggets to win this game outright at decent -116 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.

BET ON DENVER NUGGETS TO WIN (-116 odds, 10bet)

Game 2 (Trailblazers leads 1-0)

May 24, 10:10 p.m., Ball Arena

In that same vein, we wouldn’t expect either the Denver Nuggets or the Portland Trail Blazers to build a multi-game lead early in this series. In my opinion, the first half of Game 1 was more indicative of what we should expect from this series than the onslaught we saw from the Blazers coming out of the halftime break.

The first half saw a lot of back and forth, with a hot streak from Carmelo Anthony to close out the opening frame giving the Blazers a five point lead at the first break. The Nuggets then came roaring back in the second quarter led by their MVP candidate center Nikola Jokic, giving them a three-point lead heading into the half.

That’s when the Blazers got hot. Portland was down nine a few minutes into the third quarter when they went on a 22-9 run that saw them snatch the lead, which they would not relinquish for the rest of the contest. They also went on an 8-0 run to finish off the third, which ended up being the most decisive 12 minutes of the game, as it saw Portland outscore their opponents by 13.

It’s tough to rely on hot shooting in the playoffs, however. More often than not, a team that puts on an offensive show in one game will come into the next game and lay a goose egg. I’m not saying Portland is in line for a goose egg, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be hitting their triples at a 48 percent clip like they did in Game 1, which leads us to believe that the NBA pick to make for Game 2 is on the losers of Game 1.

The Nuggets didn’t have a terrible game, but they really faltered after taking that small lead into halftime. They were outscored by 17 in the final 24 minutes of the game. They can’t allow that to happen again, and doubtless head coach Michael Malone will have laid into his guys more than once during and after that pitiful second half display.

After a big first half, Jokic had to carry his team through the third quarter as well, dropping 12 points in the frame. He came out with a minute left in the quarter, however, and did not return to the court until there were only six minutes left in the game and his team down six. He went quiet when he did come back, with his final field goal coming with just under six minutes left in the game.

Malone was also a bit strange in his allotment of minutes, with Jokic playing just 35 for the night. Considering the number and significance of the injuries Denver is dealing with, that simply will not be enough for the presumptive 2021 MVP if the Nuggets intend to make a serious playoff run here… or to even beat the Blazers, for that matter.

That’s not to say that he’s playing with a bunch of scrubs though. Austin Rivers and Michael Porter Jr. were two of the most dangerous three-point shooters over the final two weeks of the regular season, and they combined to go 2-for-15 from downtown in Game 1. We would not expect that phenomenon to repeat itself, which is another reason we really like the Nuggets’ spread as one of our best bets for today.

The other reason we love the Nuggets here in Game 2 is because shooting percentages always return to the mean sooner rather than later, so we’d expect the percentages to even out come Monday night in the Rockies. We’re going with the Nuggets to cover a small -1.5 NBA point spread at attractive -110 NBA odds as one of our top picks on Monday night.




Game 3 (series tied at 1-1)

May 27, 10:30 p.m., Moda Center

After losing Game 1 by 14 points, the Denver Nuggets got their revenge swiftly, taking Game 2 by double-digits as well, winning 128-109 on Monday night. It was clear that the Nuggets knew it was time to go to work right from the moment they stepped on the court, putting up 31 points in the first quarter and following that up with a 46-point barrage in the second frame.

They were playing so well during that second quarter that they nearly overshadowed an historic quarter from the Portland Trail Blazers’ sacred time keeper, Damian Lillard. Dame Time tried to carry the Blazers with him to the promised land, but unfortunately even his six threes in the second quarter and playoff record-tying eight long balls in the half weren’t even enough to keep his team within a single-digit deficit by halftime.

And some of those were truly vintage Logo Lillard. Can you imagine what the score might have looked like if Dame Dolla hadn’t been pulling up at will in the second quarter? My god, think of the massacre. Not even Lillard can keep a torrid pace like that up for long, however, and like any mortal, he eventually cooled off.

Despite tying Vince Carter with those eight threes in a half, he was unable to get just three in the second half to tie Klay Thompson’s playoff record, instead finishing with just nine triples. The Nuggets made a significant adjustment in the second half which certainly contributed to the All-NBA point guard’s meager 10-point total in the final two frames.

Denver head coach Michael Malone decided to put 6’8” Aaron Gordon on Lillard in the second half, and with his length, athleticism, and defensive ability, it certainly caused Portland’s best player significant issues. At least, enough that he was unable to keep his team in the game during the second half. We’d expect to see that matchup a lot in Game 3 too, though Portland head coach Terry Stotts should be running Lillard through a lot more screens to try to avoid Gordon.

CJ McCollum also played well, going 9-for-12 from the field for 21 points, and Norman Powell went 5-for-9 for 15 points. It was the big men that didn’t show up, going just 3-for-11 from the field on the night. Nikola Jokic is likely going to be the NBA MVP for this season, but that doesn’t have much to do with his defensive acumen, so if Portland is to retake the series lead, they’ll need Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter to step up.

Nurkic actually said to the media that their plan had been to let Jokic score at will and take away everyone else. I would say that they failed at doing either part of their plan in Game 2: Jokic had 38 points on 15-for-20 shooting and he also had five dimes while four teammates scored in double-digits.

Monte Morris was a revelation off the bench, as per usual, and the trio of Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and Austin Rivers were all firing with success from long range. That harmony between the Joker and his comrades is a big reason we like them to take Game 3 as our underdog NBA pick on Thursday.

While the supporting casts here are both solid, it’s become pretty clear that this is pretty much going to be a battle of superstars. Damian vs. Nikola. Lillard vs. Jokic. Dame vs. Joker. Of the players who have played two playoff games

so far, Lillard leads all players with 38.0 per game and Jokic is right behind him at 36.0 a night. Personally, I believe that Jokic’s efficient inside game is a lot more sustainable than Lillard’s 35-foot chuck-up strategy.

I’m not dissing Lillard, he actually shoots the logo shot better than most players shoot regular three-pointers, but guys get cold and jumpers stop falling. This is not the case with layups, putbacks, and other easy types of shots the Joker is using in the paint to get his numbers. Lillard will stop hitting jumpers at some point, but Jokic can do his dance in the paint all day every day, so we like the Nuggets for one of our top picks on Thursday.

The Nuggets were actually one of the best road teams in the NBA this season, goin 22-14 straight up when they were playing away from home. Only the Phoenix Suns had a better road record during the regular season, so it’s looking encouraging for Malone to get his boys back in the driver’s seat of this series.

After winning Game 2 by nearly 20 points, it seems strange that the Nuggets are now four to five point underdogs to the Blazers, who are also the lower seed, but hey, I’m not gonna turn my nose up at clear betting value. We were going to go with a small Nuggets spread, but we feel confident to go get all of that value and take Denver straight up at drool-worthy +150 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.

BET ON DENVER NUGGETS TO WIN (+150 odds, Betway)

Game 4 (Nuggets leads series 2-1)

May 29, 04:30 p.m., Moda Center

The Denver Nuggets jumped all over the Portland Trail Blazers coming out of the gate during Game 3 at Portland’s Moda Center. They dropped 39 points on the home team, though the Blazers did have 30 points of their own to show for the first frame. The Blazers would come back a bit during the second quarter, though they were unable to regain the advantage, with their last lead of the game coming with just over four minutes left in the first.

The Nuggets came out of the break with a small five point lead, and the deficit would remain within that range for most of the second half. With just under seven minutes remaining, it was a tie game at 91 all, and that’s when the Nuggets began to pull away for good. It was recent acquisition Austin Rivers, who had been sitting on his couch, out of the NBA as recently as two months ago, who was the catalyst for the Nuggets.

While he didn’t do much in the first half, going 2-for-5 from the field and 1-for-4 from deep, Rivers caught fire like a California forest in those final six minutes of Game 3. They do employ the presumptive 2021 NBA MVP in Denver, but it was Rivers and his streaky shooting that led the team to the promised land in Game 3: he nailed four triples in the final six minutes while also draining crucial free throws to help seal the deal.

And the deal definitely needed some extra sealing, to be sure. When Rivers hit his fourth triple in about four minutes with 1:24 left, the Nuggets went up eight points and when Facundo Campazzo hit two free throws to make it a ten point game, the contest seemed to be done and dusted. Not so fast.

Damian Lillard responded to those free throws with a quick triple. Then Rivers hit two free throws. Five seconds later Carmelo Anthony nailed another three. Campazzo then split a pair of free throws. Another triple from Lillard. Two free throw makes for Monte Morris. A CJ McCollum triple to make it a three-point game. Morris then missed the deciding free throws, but unfortunately for Portland, they could not get the board, and Nikola Jokic got the putback to send the clash into the history books.

Jokic was able to dominate the glass in that crucial moment because Portland big man Jusuf Nurkic had fouled out and their other seven-footer, Enes Kanter, had effectively been removed from the rotation, playing only six minutes on the night.

You might say, “oh but Nurkic will be back for Game 4 he won’t foul out again,” but in fact, that would be quite the leap. Nurkic is a great player, but he has had his hands full with his fellow Balkan-born seven-footer from the Nuggets, Mr. Jokic. Not only did he foul out in Game 3, but he also did so in Game 2, and had four fouls in Game 1.

Clearly, the Bosnian cannot handle what the Serbian is bringing to the table on the offensive end, which is why he’s been hacking him so often. The Nuggets may be without Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and PJ Dozier, but they still have their best player, and their superb depth has proven it’s worth and convinced us that Denver should once again be our NBA pick for this clash.

We cashed in big-time on a Denver underdog moneyline at +150 NBA odds on Thursday night, and we will look to do it again as the Blazers are once again coming into this one as the overwhelming favorites despite the fact that they are the lower seed in this series.

And it’s not like the Blazers have been shooting terribly and will bounce back next game. 31 percent from deep is below their season average, sure, but Anthony, McCollum, Lillard, and Norm Powell all shot the ball at 40 percent or better overall in Game 3. Not to mention that Dame had 37 points on the night and still couldn’t find a way to get the W, which is another reason we like Denver for our top pick here.

Denver won’t shoot 50+ percent from deep again, but they don’t need to because they’re already a very efficient-shooting team from inside the arc as well. Morris, Jokic, and MPJ are always uber-efficient, so if Rivers can keep that hot hand going, this could end up being a much quicker series than most had thought.

The Nuggets are coming into this one as three to five point underdogs depending on which sportsbooks you go with, but we don’t care about the NBA point spread for this one: we’re betting straight up again. Just like Thursday, we’re taking the Joker and his comrades to win as the underdogs, offering beautiful +145 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.

BET ON DENVER NUGGETS TO WIN (+145 odds, Betway)

Game 6 (Nuggets leads series 3-2)

June 3, 08:00 p.m., Moda Center

(Playoff Betting Record: 21-14, +5.92 Units)

It was truly a game for the ages on Tuesday night in the Rockies as the third-seeded Denver Nuggets went toe to toe with the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in a double-overtime thriller that will not soon be forgotten. After allowing the Nuggets to go up by 22 in the first half, the Blazers battled back and turned this one into quite a contest.

The score was basically within five points for the entire second half and both overtimes, with each team building leads of seven or eight points several times, only to have their opponents come back with a prompt response. The way they were answering each other, you would have thought that Allen Iverson had suited up for both teams on Tuesday night.

No one could really get any sort of a comfortable lead, though it was the Blazers chasing the Nuggets more often than not down the stretch and in both overtimes. Denver seemed to have a bit of a hold on the game late in regulation, but every time they got a little bit of breathing room, the Blazers would drop in a triple to keep the game tight.

First it was Robert Covington, then it was CJ McCollum, and then it was Damian Lillard who of course put in the game-tying three-ball as time expired in regulation. Once overtime started, it was like the rest of Portland’s players apart from Lillard had already clocked out. It was essentially Dame Dolla against the entire Denver Nuggets squad throughout both extra periods.

Denver burst out of the gates in overtime, going up 9 halfway through the five-minute frame. Cue Dame Time. First, it was an and-one layup, then a deep triple, another stepback three, and then with 6.6 seconds left, the game-tying long-ball to send the game to double overtime.

After five quick points to start the second overtime, Lillard began to defer to his teammates, and a bad pass to McCollum that led to the latter stepping out of bounds together with a missed dunk from Covington essentially sealed this one in Denver’s favor.

Damian Lillard ended the contest with 55 points on 17-for-24 shooting from the field, including a record-breaking 12-for-17 night from beyond the arc which saw him eclipse Klay Thompson’s previous single playoff-game record of 11 triples in one night. But still, it was not enough to get his team the W.

Lillard can’t play much better than he did on Tuesday, but every other player on the roster is in line for a bounce back game on Thursday night. They really could not have played more poorly than they did on Tuesday, especially down the stretch when they sat back and watched as Dame attempted to carry them. With that in mind, we like them to come back big and play up to snuff on Thursday, which is why we like Portland for our NBA pick here.

The rest of the Blazers shot about 38 percent from the floor: Carmelo Anthony was just 3-for-11, McCollum was just 7-for-22, Norman Powell was 5-for-14 after exploding in Game 4, and Anfernee Simons was 2-for-7. Those guys can all shoot that thang with efficiency, and we’d expect them all to be riding for Dame in Game 6 after what he did for them in Game 5.

On the other side, the Nuggets were looking very good from the floor on Tuesday night, with Austin Rivers, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. combining to go 9-for-17 from long range in the contest. We’d expect that rate to drop off a smidge in Game 6.

MPJ could keep that efficiency up, but Gordon is not that great from outside, and we all know how streaky Rivers is. When he gets hot he’s as good as anyone, but Rivers very rarely has two straight quality games, so our top pick here is relying on him failing to find his shooting rhythm in Game 6.

Lillard is unlikely to put up 55 points again on Thursday, but considering that his team is on the brink of elimination, we’d still expect him to have a great day. He carried his team almost single-handedly to double overtime, so Portland should be able to enforce a certain level of domination in Game 6 if even two of those supporting characters play up to their expectations.

Now back home in the comfort of the Moda Center, Lillard and his comrades will nonetheless be playing with their backs against the wall, and I think that will bring out the best of them on Thursday night. We’re taking the Blazers to cover a -5.5 NBA point spread at beautiful -102 NBA odds to send this series to a Game 7 as one of our best bets for today.


Game 5 (series tied 2-2)

June 1, 09:00 p.m., Ball Arena

Playoff Betting Record: 18-12, +5.16 Units)

The Denver Nuggets had reclaimed their home court advantage with a Game 3 win in Portland that gave them a 2-1 lead, but the Portland Trail Blazers would not lie down for their higher seeded opponents, coming back with a big punch in Denver’s mouth in Game 4 at home.

The Blazers led the series, then it was a tie, then the Nuggets led, now it’s once again a tie. If I were a betting man—and I am—I would expect this one to get tied up once more before it’s all over. But for our NBA pick regarding Game 5 in Denver, we’ll be leaning towards the team we expect to emerge from this series with a second round playoff berth.

After showing just how efficient they can be as an offense in Game 3, the Nuggets showed exactly the opposite in Game 4, posting one of their ghastliest efforts of the season in terms of shooting efficiency. Nikola Jokic, who you can pencil in for 50+ percent efficiency pretty much every night, went just 7-for-18 for 16 points while taking just two free throws in 27 minutes.

No one on the Nuggets played more than 30 minutes in this tilt, and that’s how you know they got the breaks beaten off of them badly on Saturday night. They began the second half down by 10, but they were nearly doubled up in the third frame, as the Blazers went 36-19 in the quarter and opened up a 27-point lead heading into the final 12 minutes.

It was the Denver starters that were especially bad, with four of the five posting plus-minuses of -20 or worse, including a -32 for the presumptive 2021 NBA MVP. While the bench did play with a little more effort, they also struggled mightily with their offensive efficiency in Game 4.

Denver head coach Michael Malone emptied out his bench in the fourth as 13 of the squad’s 14 active players saw the floor, with exciting young big man Bol Bol curiously serving as the odd man out. But either way, the guys that did get in there could not find an offensive rhythm. The only guy who shot above 50 percent on the night for Denver was Vlatko Cancar, and he only took one shot, which he made.

It was ugly. Austin Rivers went back into his shell after his Game 3 explosion, taking just five shots and making two of them. Michael Porter Jr. was similarly marginalized, putting up only three shots all game long and making just one of them. Aaron Gordon also went 2-for-7 and Facundo Campazzo went 3-for-10. Even Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green, usually reliable sources of points and energy off the bench, both struggled to find a rhythm.

The fact that Damian Lillard went 1-for-10 from the field for just 10 points makes the result all the more confusing, though he did have 10 dimes in the contest. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, new addition Norman Powell was the one to carry his team on Saturday, going 11-for-15 from the field as he led all scorers with 29 points. CJ McCollum (21 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (17) were also solid contributors in the win.

We would expect both Lillard and Jokic to bounce back in a big way in Game 5, though Jokic will be especially focused considering the way his team just got spanked. Jokic was 6-for-8 in the paint on Saturday and 1-for-10 outside of it while drawing just one shooting foul all night.

he Joker simply must be more aggressive getting to his spots and getting his shots. And so does MPJ, to be frank. Three shots for the entire game is not nearly enough for the second best player on the team.

Malone was visibly frustrated after Game 4, and he said that a lot of that loss can be attributed to Portland playing harder and tougher than his team did. It was quite reminiscent of his anger following his team’s Game 1 loss, and we all remember how they responded after that. The two days off also bode well for Denver, who went 6-3 straight up (fifth-best in the NBA) when playing on two or three days rest during the regular season.

We would not expect the Nuggets to lose the points in the paint battle again, and we would certainly expect them not to shoot it at a sub 30 percent clip from downtown again either. They were eighth in the NBA with a 37.7 percent mark from beyond the arc during the regular season, so they’re generally a solid shooting team. Their 48.5 percentage from the field overall was also fourth in the association.

This series looks to have a few more twists yet, and I don’t foresee any team winning back-to-back games again before this dance is done. With that being said, it seems like it’s Denver’s turn to take one, so we’re going with a Nuggets -1.5 NBA point spread at lovely -109 NBA odds as one of our best bets for today.



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Alex is an alumnus of Ryerson University's RTA Sport Media program, a contributing NHL, NBA, and MLB writer in the team. He has been writing on sports, betting, and fantasy contests for several years, including pitstops as an NFL Editor for theScore and as one of the lead NBA news writers for fantasy sports site FantasyPros. As a lifelong athlete, bettor, and sports fan, Alex is uniquely qualified to help you reach the sports betting success that you've always dreamed of and your wife never believed you could achieve.