Danilo Gallinari led the team in scoring with 29 points in 36 minutes, and Kenneth Faried scored 13 points to go with nine rebounds one night after being carried off the court on a stretcher with an apparent neck injury.
The loss dropped the Nuggets to 12-23, and worsened their home record to 5-11. They are 12.5 games behind the Thunder for the Northwest Division lead, and four games behind the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot. The Nuggets are two games away from tying their season-worst losing streak, with their next games coming on the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies.
The Nuggets and Trail Blazers started the game off trading baskets and turnovers through the first quarter, with each team taking a few trips to the free throw line in a precursor for the evening. Jusuf Nurkic came off the bench with the second unit, and did a good job rebounding on the defensive end. The Nuggets were unable to take advantage at the free throw line, with the Trail Blazers being overly-physical on many of the Nuggets field goal attempts. Gallinari, Faried, Nelson, and Harris all had their fair share of misses. The Trail Blazers stayed in the game with some 3-pointers, and closed the quarter out on a small run to take a 61-56 lead.
The Nuggets got hot in the third quarter, pounding their way to a 80-74 lead after Darrell Arthur knocked down a midrange jumper. It was right about that point in the game when the Nuggets energy just vanished. Will Barton checked in the game, and instead of his frenetic pace, looked beat, unable to get to the rim and seeing his jump shots clang off the front of the rim. Noah Vonleh tipped in a missed layup right before the buzzer and the game was tied up at 80.
Portland came out after the break and continued to pour it on, retaking the lead on a 13-0 run capped by an Allen Crabbe 3-pointer with no Nuggets defender within 10 feet of him on the perimeter. Kostas Papanikolaou made a 3-pointer to answer the run, but the starters didn't have the energy to return to the game until the six minute mark of the quarter, and by then, it was too late, with Portland leading 97-88. They were able to close the gap to five points, but the Trail Blazers made free throws and were able to hold on to the final buzzer.
Three Things I Saw
Jusuf Nurkic is going to be alright. The second-year center only played 15 minutes, restricted as he works his way back from an injury, but he was able to pick up 12 points, eight rebounds and a block. He looked quick, using his hands to bother ballhandlers on the perimeter and scoring in the paint. He did finish 4 of 9 at the free throw line, and looked rusty from the charity stripe, but that's something I think he'll be able to improve as he continues to get his game-legs back.
The Nuggets perimeter defense stinks. Michael Malone has a lesser of two evils choice he has to make. He has to decide whether to focus his defensive scheme at preventing points in the paint or preventing points on the perimeter. Against a team that likes to attack the offensive glass like Portland, the team tries to crowd the paint and limit second chance points, The downside to that is that if they can tip the ball out to the perimeter or kick the ball out when the defense collapses, there are shooters that find themselves wide-open for 3-point shots (which are worth more than 2-point shots). The Nuggets give up an average of 45 points per game to opposing point and shooting guards, according to Rotowire, and that means that below-average guards like Allen Crabbe are able to tee up from distance and light up the scoreboard. Hopefully as Nurkic returns to health, the team will be able to progress in their defensive development and take on more responsibilities so that they can improve on their 27th-ranked defense.
Rebuilding takes time. The Nuggets are a rebuilding team - this is indisputable. Malone and Tim Connelly want to win as much as the next guy, but it's just not going to happen very often with the team this season. I drive a Toyota Yaris, and as much as I want to live my life a quarter-mile at a time, there is no way I'm able to beat other drivers off the light. Eventually (I hope) I'll be able to upgrade and putter around in some real American muscle, but for now, it's not happening. For the Nuggets, they have to watch as other teams race past them in the standings, while they're slowly picking up speed with their foot pushing the accelerator to the floor. I appreciate that the Nuggets will have veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Jameer Nelson around for the next few seasons to help guide the younger players. The organization has players I respect, and enjoy watching, that will help lead the team until the next generation is able to take over.
Yes, there will be long losing streaks. There will be nights where the Nuggets aren't competitive. But they'll continue to learn, continue to improve little by little, and eventually, they'll be a playoff team once again. If they are careful and do things the right way, they'll be a playoff team over and over. But it'll take time. For now, the Nuggets are just a bad team when they don't have the energy to give a complete effort.