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Damian Lillard explains Portland’s defensive strategy against Nikola Jokic

Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard scored 39 points on 12-of-21 shooting in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, continuing to cement himself as perhaps the most valuable player in the playoffs to date. But despite another stellar outing from their franchise pillar, the Portland Trail Blazers fell short against the Denver Nuggets – and the performance of Nikola Jokic is the biggest reason why.

The day after Jokic dropped 37 points, nine rebounds, and six assists on just 18 shots to lead the Nuggets to a 121-113 win, Lillard did his best to explain the strategy Portland had to stop Denver’s star coming into Game 1, and what areas they’ll need to clean up to best limit him going forward.

“We came into the game saying we wanted to take away his left shoulder, take away his right hand, and it just seemed like he kept getting it,” he said, per ESPN’s Royce Young. “But the best players in the league, they find a way to get to the things that they’re comfortable doing. I’m sure it’s a lot of things teams try to take away from me, and I’m so good at getting what I wanna get to, so I think that’s what we ran into with him.

“Other than that, he’s just a handful for one guy, so I think what we do as a group has to be much better,” Lillard continued. “We gotta be there for each other more as far as the help and double teams, and our communication out of that – when he gets the ball out, finding shooters and stuff like that. Everything from the physicality to the communication to us being sharper with what our coverages are, we just gotta be better.”

Jokic, doubted by some before his postseason debut, has been dominant for the Nuggets in the playoffs so far. As Lillard suggests, there are only so many defensive answers for the most gifted, influential offensive players in the world, and the Blazers’ best one – the presence of injured starting center Jusuf Nurkic – isn’t an option for Terry Stotts.

Chances are that Jokic will continue feasting in this series. Like the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, Portland needs to try and find a balance between letting Jokic put up points one-on-one and sending aggressive help to get the ball out of his hands. Unfortunately, it’s a nearly impossible one to strike with sustained success, especially when Denver’s supporting cast plays as well as it did in Game 1.