Nuggets, Blazers series starts with Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard

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DENVER (AP) — The Joker versus Dame. Versatile big man against prodigious scorer.

They are two big reasons why Denver and Portland are meeting in the Western Conference semifinals as the series begins Monday in the Mile High City.

Nikola Jokic: The 7-foot, do-it-all center for the Nuggets who guided them to a Game 7 victory over San Antonio with another triple-double.

Damian Lillard: The gifted shooter who lifted the Blazers to a series win over Oklahoma City by erupting for 50 points in Game 5, including the game-winner at the buzzer.

A featured attraction in what should be a formidable series.

“Damian Lillard right now is playing at another level,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Same with his guy, who’s nicknamed The Joker because he’s constantly filled with surprises.

“Couldn’t be happier for Nikola, couldn’t be prouder for Nikola,” said Malone, whose second-seeded squad advanced in the postseason for the first time in a decade. “Because all of his hard work has allowed him to go on the national stage and hopefully people take notice of what he’s doing, because it’s been remarkable.”

Jokic followed up his All-Star season with a playoff debut for the ages. He averaged 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists against the Spurs. In Game 7 on Saturday, Jokic was completely drained after playing more than 43 minutes and posting his second triple-double of the series during a 90-86 win.

“I think the team expected me to do something,” Jokic said. “So I was just trying to go out there and play my best basketball possible.”

Lillard averaged 33 points in the Thunder series. His backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, chipped in 24.4 points.

“A lot of people thought they would beat us,” Lillard said of the Thunder. “We answered the call in the first round. We did what we were supposed to do. We handled our business. We dominated the series. I think that’s what feels the best – we were sharp in everything that we did.”

One thing the third-seeded Blazers have on their side heading into Round 2: rest. The Blazers were off for two days and practiced for two before flying to Denver early Sunday. Blazers coach Terry Stotts compared getting up to speed on short notice to cramming for a test.

Then again, they know each other well.

Denver had a 3-1 advantage over Portland in the regular season. The Blazers could be without Enes Kanter, whose status for the second round of the playoffs remains uncertain because of a shoulder injury. They’re already missing Jusuf Nurkic after he broke his leg in an overtime victory at home over the Brooklyn Nets on March 25.