C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe lead the way for the Portland Trail Blazers against the Denver Nuggets, combining for 49 points in a 110-103 victory at home. The Nuggets lost their fourth game in a row, having been defeated in seven of their last eight games with the Warriors on deck Saturday in Oakland.
Will Barton had another strong game off the bench, leading the Nuggets in scoring with 31 points on 22 field goal attempts in his return to Portland. Gary Harris made four 3-point shots on his way to 19 points in another matchup against a dynamic scoring guard in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers fed off their home crowd in the first quarter, using that energy to push the tempo up and try to jump out to a fast start against the Nuggets. The Nuggets did a good job rebounding on the offensive end, but that's one of the Trail Blazers' strengths, and they had success there as well. Harris started off guarding McCollum, and did a good job chasing him around screens and keeping him out of the paint. When Kenneth Faried and Joffrey Lauvergne are on the court, it's imperative for the guards to limit penetration from the perimeter. Harris was able to limit the damage on defense, but the other guards struggled to limit penetration, and it would be a theme the remainder of the evening.
The Trail Blazers started the second quarter on a run, and the Nuggets forgot how to score again. They don't have talented enough shooters to be okay with midrange jump shots, and if the ball doesn't keep moving, it's tough sledding to get points. The Trail Blazers encouraged the Nuggets to put up those jump shots, and then ran off misses on their way to 32 points in the quarter. Poor execution at the end of the quarter allowed Portland to get an easy bucket in transition, and the Nuggets found themselves down 58-51 instead of what could have been a one-point game.
The Nuggets made some adjustments at halftime, and kept pace with the Trail Blazers for a few minutes, but gave up a run and quickly found themselves down by double digits. Crabbe began to heat up, combining with McCollum to push the lead to 13 by the end of the quarter.
Portland's starting backcourt of CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe has combined for 40 points (16-27 FG, 6-12 3-PT) through three quarters.— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) December 31, 2015
As the fourth quarter wound down, the Nuggets made a brief run, closing the deficit down to five points at one point. Faried made a big block in a small-ball lineup with Mike Miller at the four, and for a moment, it seemed like the Nuggets may actually make a game out of the night.
Portland called a timeout to stem the tide, and Allen Crabbe swished a corner three to drive the nail in the Nuggets coffin. Denver tried to extend the game by fouling, but Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee were able to knock down their free throws and close the door on the Denver fourth quarter.
The Nuggets aren't going to win many games when they let their opponent make double digit 3-pointers or shoot nearly 50 percent from the floor. They can't let their opponent grab 12 offensive rebounds, especially when a majority of those are coming for second-unit players. Al-Farouq Aminu had a good night, posting up on offense for easy buckets and snagging nine defensive rebounds.
The Nuggets have lost 11 of their last 12 games in Portland, and five straight, with their last victory on Feb. 27, 2013.
There is hope on the horizon however. The Nuggets should be getting some players back from injury Saturday, including starters like Emmanuel Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari, and Jusuf Nurkic. I'm ready to be done including Nurkic on the injury report, and hopefully the Bosnian Beast is able to get back up to speed soon.
Key matchup: Gary Harris vs C.J. McCollum
Harris played McCollum well, but all the Trail Blazers had to do was run a few off-ball screens to get either Nelson or Foye on the dynamic scorer and it was game over.
Key thing to watch for: Will Barton makes his return to Portland
Barton had another amazing game, often serving as the primary option on offense. Whether he was tipping passes, grabbing rebounds to push the pace, stretching the floor from the 3-point line, or rising up for mid-range jumpers, Barton was electric all night. Barton is one of the best players in the league at scoring in transition, and he's put in the work to improve his outside shot that he's a real threat when he has to resort to a jump shot.
McCollum will win Most Improved Player of the Year, and Barton should be in line for the Sixth Man of the Year award. There isn't anyone else that's been as good as either player in those categories.