Damian Lillard was not catching up on his sleep. He wasn’t relaxed by the pool soaking up some extra rays. He definitely wasn’t thinking about his summer plans. No, Lillard spent the past week off, focused on one thing and one thing only. Parade goals. He was preparing himself for the opening game and series against Denver. He was struck by the ultimate mentality. That he and his teammates were ready. They weren’t the blazers of the past that didn’t show up for the playoffs. That Blazers let the politics of the league, the buzz of the media, or the higher seeding of opponents to intimidate them. There was one mantra going through his head as he and his teammates brought it to the Nuggets Saturday night. Enough is enough!
The Blazers were indeed a beacon of maturity and calmness. There was no fear whether they were hanging to a meager lead or down by 9. They were always going to win. There was just something different about this team that even took Denver by surprise. The Blazers current iteration reminds one of the rag tag group who won it all back in 1977. They have cohesiveness that has been phantasmal since the era of Lillard began. The Blazers are so deep, they have such an arsenal of weapons, an 8 man rotation who can all score in double digits if need be. The missing ingredient has seemingly been added to the pot. We got shooters. A lot of them.
The Blazers came to play Saturday, defeating the Nuggets with the biggest margin of the opening day of the playoffs, 123-109. Lillard was solid. The Nuggets too often left him in single coverage with Campazzo, a pest in his own right, with the assignment on Lillard. The letter 0, so used to being doubled was surprised at 1st, got comfortable and used the scheme against the Nuggets torching them for 34 points. he had 13 assists including 7 in a single quarter (a franchise record). He was the fearless leader, making an example while also getting his teammates involved. Unlike Nikola Jokic who tried to put his team on his shoulders scoring 34 points of his own. The problem was he didn’t trust his teammates. And it cost them dearly.
Carmelo Anthony came out playing like young Melo. Well, at least in the first half. He hit 4 three pointers and made a three point play on a Lillard esque move at the basket to draw an and 1. He wanted to beat the team where he began it all back in 2003. The boos didn’t bother him. He laughed them off and when asked in his post game interview about them, said he loved the Denver fans and didn’t know why they were booing him. That answer is easy. He is on the other team now and he was torching the Nuggets.
CJ and Nurk seemed to still be adjusting to the high altitude and struggled a bit early before finding themselves. Nurkic threw down some thunderous dunks and got some key defensive stops to let it be known the beast is here. Nurkic has not played many a playoff with Portland, and when he has, he has been inured. A healthy Nurkic is just what the doctor ordered. He finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists. And, you know, CJ is going to get his. He finished with 21 points of his own.
Anferenee Simons was the other big story of the night. He only finished with 14 points, but he also only missed one shot, hitting 4 of 5 from distance and 5 of 6 from the floor. He looked poised out there, a far cry from the sheepish youngster too modest to take big shots. Simons has developed into a shooter and a shot creator. He is a sharpened, refined tool, that is looking more and more like the player Neil Olshey hoped he would be when he drafted him.
Michael Porter Jr did finish with 25 points, though he shot only 1-10 from three. Aaron Gordon was a bit a force in the paint recording 16 points and 8 rebounds on the night. But, alas the sum of the whole of one team was greater than that of the other. And, so the Blazers take a 1-0 lead in the series. There is a confidence surrounding the Blazers, an air of resolve, that just feels right. This is a Blazer team that is ready.