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Denver Nuggets grind out win at home, defeat Blazers 108-104

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The Denver Nuggets had clutch performances from Emmanuel Mudiay and J.J. Hickson to come away with a win at home against the Blazers, despite 30 points from Damian Lillard.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets won a nail-biter Monday night, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers to win their first game at home, 108-104. They did so with great performances from Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson and Emmanuel Mudiay. Playing without Joffrey Lauvergne once again, and Jameer Nelson unexpectedly out with a strained back, the Nuggets were short-handed but came up big with some key performances. Hickson scored 19 points and had 13 rebounds while replacing Lauvergne, while Faried scored 17 points and Mudiay added 18 of his own to allow the Nuggets to pull away after a game that went back-and-forth and consisted of multiple runs.

The game began with some sloppy play from both teams, as the first few possessions saw both the Blazers and the Nuggets turning the ball over, but a nice play where Danilo Gallinari set up Faried for a shot put the Nuggets on the board. The Blazers scored their first points off a jump shot from Damian Lillard, as he and Meyers Leonard did most of the damage early in the quarter for the Blazers. The Nuggets, meanwhile, used a balanced attack and had some good plays from Hickson and Faried inside, as well as some jump shots from Gary Harris. All of the starters for the Nuggets scored in their first stints before being substituted by the bench. The lineup for the Nuggets to end the quarter consisted of Will Barton, Kostas Papanikolaou, Randy Foye (who was running the point), Nikola Jokic and Darrell Arthur. The quarter came to a close with Foye hitting a three-pointer to cut the lead to one, but it was immediately answered by a three from Maurice Harkless. The first quarter was close throughout and ended with the Blazers leading 33-29, with 10 points from Lillard.

The second quarter consisted of a 9-0 run from the Nuggets bench, in which they took a 40-36 lead. During this time, Papanikolaou scored his first points as a Nugget with a three-pointer. Foye played nicely during this stretch as well and had 7 points before being replaced by Mudiay. With the starters back in the game, the Nuggets were unable to hold on to the lead as they struggled to hit shots and gave up some easy baskets on the other end, causing Scott Hastings to note that the offense felt forced with this group. After consecutive threes from Allen Crabbe and Lillard during a 10-0 Blazers run, the Nuggets fell behind 53-48, causing Michael Malone to call a time-out. Lillard dominated the first half with 20 points, but the Nuggets were able to come within one point at the end of the second with a three-pointer from Foye, making the score 58-57 going into halftime. Foye was the leading scorer of the half for the Nuggets with 10 points.

The beginning of the second half saw Leonard hitting a three-pointer, but some hustle plays from Faried and Hickson kept the Nuggets close while Gallinari was struggling to hit shots from the field. A floater from Hickson gave the Nuggets the lead back, 66-65, and this would start a run by the Nuggets. They eventually achieved a seven-point lead after going on a 9-2 scoring run, and it was a much better performance overall from the starters. However, after holding Lillard scoreless through the majority of the third quarter, he hit six straight points including an and-one from behind the three-point line, and the Blazers had the lead going into the fourth, 80-79.

The fourth quarter began in much the same way as the third, with a 7-0 run by the Nuggets after four straight points from Jokic and a three from Foye. However, with Harris out of the game, C.J. McCollum went on a 7-0 run on his own to regain the lead for the Blazers, 87-86. Then, unbelievably enough, the Nuggets answered with another 7-0 run including five points from Barton. A 6-0 run from the Blazers (it was getting ridiculous at this point) tied the game at 93. Some big-time plays from the Nuggets, however, gave them the momentum and the lead once again. Check out two of these plays below.

Despite the Nuggets missing 11 free throws on the night, clutch free-throws from both Hickson and Mudiay sealed the deal, allowing the Nuggets to hold on. It was a tough battle, but the Nuggets persevered in a must-win game to come out on top.

Key Match-up: Emmanuel Mudiay vs. Damian Lillard

The first half of this matchup was clearly won by Lillard, as he scored 20 points, 7-12 from the field, and notched 3 assists. Mudiay had a nice first-half in which he got to the line, hit some jump shots and found his teammates, but only came away with 7 points and 2 assists in the first 24 minutes of action.

The second half is when this match-up got interesting. Lillard was held scoreless through most of the third quarter, but he went on a tear with 6 points in the last remaining minutes heading into the fourth. However, Mudiay came alive when the Nuggets needed him the most, hitting some shots and key free throws, as well as making some nice passes to allow the Nuggets to pull ahead. What's perhaps most impressive is the fact that he had two key blocks in the waning moments. This was a game where Lillard clearly showed he's an elite point guard of the present, but Mudiay showed he's on his way after finishing with 18 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists.

Things to Watch: Rising star C.J. McCollum and the bench matchup

McCollum began the game with an unimpressive stat line, only scoring 2 points off 1-7 shooting from the field in the first half. Harris and Mudiay made it tough for him to get into a rhythm through three quarters, which was desperately needed since Lillard dominated the first 48 minutes. However, McCollum heated up in the fourth quarter while Harris was on the bench and he was being guarded by Foye. He ultimately finished the game with 16 points, while Harris finished with 7. Overall, Nuggets fans can feel encouraged about the team's defense after watching a rising star in McCollum struggle the way he did to start the game.

The Nuggets bench proved key tonight for Denver, especially considering their starters were outscored 84-67 by the Blazers starting lineup. However, the Nuggets clearly won the bench matchup, as they scored 41 points to the Blazers' 20. Foye was big tonight, as he hit three three-pointers, and Barton also came alive at the end, finishing the game with 11 points. Jokic put up a nice game as well with 10 points of his own. Meanwhile, Crabbe was the only player to make much of an impression off the bench for the Blazers, but even he struggled, only hitting 4-12 from the field.

Key Question: Can the Nuggets quicken the pace against a team on the second night of a back-to-back, as they were unable to do against the Utah Jazz last week?

The short answer to this question is "no." The Nuggets only had 9 fast break points, and frustratingly enough, the Blazers had 10. However, it was clear that tired legs helped us win this one, as the Blazers missed a lot of jump shots to end the game. The Nuggets still have to find a way to play at a faster pace, especially at home, but it's tough to complain too much when they were still able to win the game.

Key Stat: 52 points in the paint for the Nuggets.

Box score via espn.com