Jusuf Nurkic wanted to make sure everyone in Denver knew exactly what the Nuggets let go tonight. The Portland Trail Blazers were fueled by their big center and the scoring of C.J. McCollum to secure a win that was paramount to making the playoffs. The Nuggets likewise got a solid night from Nikola Jokic and all of their starters but in the end the Blazers had a little too much with Nurkic going for a career high scoring in a big night for the big Bosnian. Portland takes the game 122-113 and leaves Denver in doubt about their playoff chances.
Right out of the gate Nurkic and Jokic started banging in the post, with Juka getting an offensive board and a putback on the Blazers first possession while each center got touches early. Nurkic was bullying his way into the post while Jokic was doing his usual array of post play, floor spacing and passing. The big men provided the energy early and it was contagious as Denver and Portland went back and forth scoring buckets. As is often the case, there was little in the way of defense as both teams were over twenty with just under half of the quarter to play. Denver’s starters provided a small lead when the bench started checking in but there wasn’t much in the way of breathing room as the quarter drew to a close and the Nuggets led by three after one.
Kenneth Faried opened the second with a highlight putback dunk on his own miss and it was easy to see that he certainly was up for the game. With Faried and Will Barton leading the bench they were able to put a little separation between them and the Blazers but Portland’s reserves wouldn’t let Denver get too far ahead. Jokic checked back in around the seven minute mark to play alongside Mason Plumlee and Danilo Gallinari as coach went with his uber tall lineup. Coach even went so far as to put Barton at the point. Will kept providing the Nuggets a big boost on offense which helped keep them in front. However, once the Blazers starters got back in they went on a 10-0 run behind Nurkic and McCollum to seize a four point lead. Denver pushed back after a timeout behind Jokic but McCollum and Lillard answered for Portland. At the end of the half the game was very tight with the Blazers up 66-64.
The Nuggets got off to a hot start in the second half to regain the lead before McCollum and Lillard responded quickly to get it back for Portland. Just as was the case all first half, the teams were trading baskets while playing little defense with the score tied at 75 and still over seven minutes to play in the third. The Nuggets starters cooled down a bit at that point which allowed Portland to gain the lead. Denver appeared to be content with settling for jump shots meanwhile the Blazers were attacking the paint. The Nuggets also were having continuous problems getting rebounds and the Blazers were feasting on second chance points. After another offensive rebound Lillard nailed a deep three which pushed Portland’s lead to double digits as the quarter ended.
There was a ray of hope as the final quarter opened when Murray hit a deep three and then Chandler followed with one of his own. As had been the case often though McCollum countered for Portland which was preventing Denver from closing the gap to make it a tight game. Just when you thought the Nuggets were going to pull back even McCollum showed why he is one of the best pure scorers in the league. The Nuggets starters wouldn’t let the Blazers pull away though as they responded with a mini run of their own to pull back within six. Portland quickly called a timeout and was able to regroup, just as much as they also were able to cool off Denver which let the Blazers push the lead back to ten. The starters would make one last push to try and get back into it but too much McCollum and too many misses from Gallinari would ultimately seal the Nuggets fate.
Best Match up: Nikola Jokic vs Jusuf Nurkic
The premiere duel tonight did not disappoint as each guy had a big game for his team. Nurkic scored a career high 33 points and coralled 16 rebounds, meanwhile Jokic was the do all center that makes him so good. The game set up for Juka just the way Denver fans didn’t want it to go with some quick easy buckets and he fed off the energy in the building to be a dominant force down low for Portland. Jokic wasn’t going to be outdone though as he got on triple double watch early on as usual and though he trailed off later in the game he still came close to putting up the triple double on the night with 17/8/8. Nurkic would wind up with the more consistent night and the monster stat line but it was easy to see why both of these guys have the league buzzing. The first battle between the two was certainly exciting, hopefully we’ll get many more to come.
Main thing I noticed: Nuggets could have gone to Jokic more
Despite Nikola’s big start I thought the Nuggets should have made a more consistent effort to get him the ball throughout the game. In the third quarter the Denver went away from Nikola for large portions of the period and thats when Portland was able to get separation. It was another one of those weird times where the veterans almost forget what offense they are running and resorted to taking contested long range shots in general isolation offense. If Denver somehow finds a way to get into the playoffs they have to expect every game to be like tonight’s was where the offensive lapses and the lack of involvement from their star player at times cost them.
Concluding thought: now we see what they are made of
The loss tonight is a big blow to Denver’s playoff hopes but it doesn’t necessarily mean its over. Even if the Nuggets end up coming up short, how this young roster responds will tell a lot about who’s got what it takes to succeed in the NBA. Regardless of whether or not the Nuggets win another game there will be many positives to take from this season and the future does look bright. However, a total collapse in these remaining eight games would certainly put a sour note on the ending, where as a valiant effort down to the final game will leave many encouraged about the Nuggets progress and future.