The Denver Nuggets finished their season in Portland against a Trail Blazers team that knew they were locked into the fifth seed before the opening tip off. Nonetheless Portland played big minutes for their starters and their top notch back court of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard had another big night scoring to secure the victory. With the Blazers playoff seeding already set the only thing at stake was a few lottery balls in the NBA draft lottery which Denver secured with the loss as they end the season with a 33-49 record.
The Nuggets opened the game with a surprise as Mike Miller got the start and came out firing from distance while Jusuf Nurkic and NikolaJokic worked inside for easy baskets. The Blazers countered with their dynamic back court duo but Denver was able to get an early advantage. However, the Nuggets play got sloppy towards the middle of the quarter and the Blazers had a small run to pull even. Denver promptly reeled off an 8-0 run on the backs of Emmanuel Mudiay and the Balkan Towers with a little help from a well rested Kenneth Faried. Jokic buried a buzzer beating three as the quarter ended and Denver had the lead 31-27.
Allen Crabbe opened up hot from distance in the second quarter which helped Portland take the lead back from the Nuggets and each team traded baskets, highlighted by a big alley oop from D.J. Augustin to Faried, and the lead as the quarter reached the midway point. Crabbe in particular was giving Denver trouble with thirteen points in just ten minutes and Portland looked like they might start to stretch their lead until Faried knocked down a rare three pointer to give the advantage back to the Nuggets. The game continued to be a back and forth affair and Denver was able to create some turnovers to keep the Blazers from pulling away with their lead just two at half.
Gary Harris opened the second half with a pair of buckets for Denver but Portland also was converting on offense early in the third quarter behind McCollum and the Blazers pushed the lead to double digits. Denver's play started to get sloppy with the all too familiar mix of turnovers, poor rotations on defense and poor shot selection rearing its ugly head early in the third quarter once again. Faried checked back in which picked up the energy and stopped the bleeding, but after he missed the free throw on an and one the Nuggets still trailed by nine with just over three minutes left in the third. Denver went small to close out the quarter and Mudiay led a small run to pull within eight at the end of three.
The Blazers opened the final quarter with a Brian Roberts three pointer followed by a Brian Roberts and one and just like that they were up by fourteen. As the quarter progressed the toll of an eigty-two game season that is going to end outside the playoffs seemed to set in on Denver. Portland pushed their lead even larger while the Nuggets play was uninspired and sloppy. After a stern lecture during a timeout from coach Michael Malone the Nuggets went on an 8-0 run to pull within ten. The teams traded missed shots and turnovers before a pair of Jokic free throws got Denver within six. Unfortunately the Nuggets didn't have enough to get over the hump and an Ed Davis layup put Portland ahead by nine with just over thirty seconds remaining. The Nuggets end up losing 107-99.
Box score via ESPN.com
Best match up: Damian Lillard vs Emmanuel Mudiay
Each of these guys put up a bunch of shots tonight. Mudiay in particular was playing like he was Kobe Bryant in his last NBA game. Still, it was fun to watch them go at each other with each guy going to the rack on several occasions (though Lillard did take plenty of shots from three point range). Mudiay has come a long way this season as far as his scoring ability but his shooting efficiency is still a big area that needs improvement this offseason. If he can just get his overall shooting percentage in the 45% range next year it'll do wonders for his game.
Main thing I noticed: The towers are a beast on the glass
It was Jokic who had the big performance scoring wise out of the two big men but both he and Nurkic were absolutely feasting on boards tonight, with both recording double doubles. The sheer size of the two was tough for Portland to handle and Nurkic's defense definitely had an impact in the game and not just with blocks, the big man tallied five steals as well (he did also unfortunately have eight turnovers...yikes). There's definitely some hope for that pairing next season and I think unless there is an offer out there that blows Tim Connelly away, Nuggets fans should expect to see both big men back in Denver next year.
Closing thought: There's a lot to look forward to
I truly believe the Nuggets are a healthy roster away from a playoff birth. I looked at the rotation tonight and in many ways I thought it was representative of what we could see next season. A starting lineup with Mudiay, Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Jokic and Nurkic with Augustin, WillmBarton, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Faried and some highly drafted rookies on the bench is a pretty solid lineup. The coach is a bright and passionate young mind that seems to have a real connection with his players. Indeed, with a little lottery luck the Nuggets could easily be the surprise team in the playoffs next season.