A sensational series will come to an end Sunday, as the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers do battle one last time – with a spot in the Western Conference Finals on the line.
The past six games have seen outstanding basketball and tremendous entertainment, not the least of which came during that insane Game 3 and its four overtimes.
It stings a little to realize one of these teams – so closely matched – will be done for the year after just 48 more minutes. Who emerges and takes their place against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors will need a few things to go right.
USA TODAY Sports' Martin Rogers examines some of the key factors and figures that will decide Game 7 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC):
It's Dame time
Damian Lillard is the most accomplished player in the series and has already shown moments of magic in this postseason. If he is able to get good looks with regularity and gets into his shooting groove, he is nearly unstoppable. Sometimes critics lament that he and colleague CJ McCollum are too similar – when things are going smoothly, they are the perfect foil for each other.
Denver has occasionally done a great job in keeping him quiet and failed miserably to do so at others. Lillard has never played a Game 7 before, but we saw everything we needed to know about his love of the big moment with that series-winner against Oklahoma City.
The Joke's on you
Nikola Jokic is goofy and funny off the court, but his productivity has been no laughing matter for the Nuggets’ opponents. It is hard to argue with the growing theory that he may be the best passing big man the NBA has seen, and his ability to find open colleagues is a huge reason why Denver has a chance to make the conference finals.
Jokic will look to establish his dominance on the game – that’s what he does every time Denver plays at home – and if he gets a quick foothold the Blazers may find themselves outsmarted and under-equipped to deal with him.
Jokic and Jamal Murray have been the team’s hardest workers and top performers all season. Home court is a significant advantage, but the Nuggets will need this pair to fire to have a shot.
Based on how the regular season went, Denver would have figured to have the bench advantage coming into this series, but it hasn’t worked out that way. The Nuggets have struggled to get much out of their supplemental parts, and it has hurt them in key games. They will look for Malik Beasley to regain his shooting touch and make life tougher for the pesky Portland defense.
Meanwhile, Enes Kanter continues to serve as a fine addition for Portland, having been told he was unwanted by the hapless New York Knicks earlier in the season.
With all eyes on the big guys, it is not far from the realm of possibility than an unheralded role player could take their place in the spotlight.
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