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Recap: Nuggets hold on to beat Blazers in a heavyweight battle 113-112

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Five straight and a win on the road against a division opponent, no matter how you do it.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 113-112 to extend their win streak to five straight. In a contested match all the way to the end, Denver had contributions from many places, including Gary Harris, making his triumphant return with 27 points and a clutch three-pointer. Paul Millsap added 22 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals, while Nikola Jokic had 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists.

Both Portland and Denver ran extremely efficient offense to open this game. Juancho Hernangomez paced the Nuggets with seven early points on two catch-and-shoot threes and a free throw, while CJ McCollum attacked consistently against Jamal Murray for easy buckets. Paul Millsap started out defending Jusuf Nurkic, but it didn’t stop the Bosnian center from scoring efficiently either. It was encouraging to get Gary Harris back, and his presence was felt early cutting to the rim for quick baskets.

As the Blazers slowed down offensively though, the Nuggets remained ablaze. Harris hit two three-pointers, Millsap worked his game in the midrange and post area, and Denver’s defense clamped down more frequently. The Blazers weren’t necessarily playing bad defensively either, but the Nuggets simply out-executed them on that end. Denver put up 38 points in the quarter and led by 12.

Both teams came out firing in the second quarter once again, but Denver couldn’t be cooled. Monte Morris scored efficiently on floaters, Mason Plumlee ran the break and hit Malik Beasley for a pretty three-pointer from the corner, and neither team could really get stops. Denver struggled to stop Meyers Leonard during this stretch and Plumlee accumulated three fouls, and that turned into a concern with the Blazers getting into the bonus early. At this point, Portland’s offense got going, and the Blazers cut Denver’s lead to just eight.

That’s when Jokic began to take over. On defense, he had sequences like this one, mirroring Blazers guards, including Damian Lillard for stretches and preventing easy looks.

And of course, there was the offense. 6/6 from the field in the first half for 13 points to go with four assists. Jamal Murray was a major catalyst here, because while Murray’s shot wasn’t falling, he accumulated six first half assists. This helped Denver extend their lead before the half to 68-53.

To begin the third quarter, offense slowed down for Denver. The flow was still reasonably strong, but Portland tightened up, and Denver simply missed some of the shots they had previously hit in the first half. On the other end, Jokic consistently helped off of Al-Farouq Aminu, who made Denver pay multiple times. In addition, Murray struggled to stay in front of McCollum. Still, Denver stuck with it, and their bench maintained the lead with just six points to spare at 88-82 through three quarters, capped off by a Trey Lyles buzzer-beater from deep.

Denver opened up the fourth quarter struggling a bit offensively, but strong defense and an excellent Plumlee block helped defense turn into offense. The bench gave up some easier points than usual, and doing too much individually on offense led to some bad turnovers and shots. Portland cut the Denver lead to just one during this stretch.

As Denver’s starters returned, Jokic came in and directed traffic on both ends, which helped calm down Denver’s offense tremendously. Harris ran the DHO game nicely, Monte Morris played in crunch time and hit a clutch three, and Millsap continued to go to work. Still, the Blazers fought incredibly hard to make this a game, and McCollum’s shot making was great in this one. A few tough calls hurt Denver, but they were at least reasonable. With the game tied and under a minute to go, Murray hit two free throws, and McCollum responded with a driving layup. After a kicked ball, Jokic hit Harris in the corner for a CLUTCH three. A McCollum layup occurred, and a long replay happened that screwed Denver out of some time in the backcourt, Murray turned it over, once overturned, once for real. Down one with 5.7 left, McCollum shot an open jumper that bricked, and the game was over.

What the Stiffs said to watch:

How will Nikola Jokic defend in space tonight?

See the video from Harrison Wind of BSN Denver above. Jokic was great in the first half and at least passable in the second. On multiple occasions, he switched onto Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Nik Stauskas, and other perimeter threats, mirroring those guys as well as can be asked for from any center. He did allow Al-Farouq Aminu to get free a few times, but overall, the perimeter defense was solid tonight. Portland shot just 6/22 from behind the three-point line, and Jokic covering ground was a major reason why.

Will Gary Harris be back?

He was, and he had a nice showing for sure. At times, he got caught gunning a little bit, but Denver needed his production to match Lillard and McCollum. Harris had 27 points tonight on 21 shots and hitting the biggest one of the game. His DHO game with Nikola Jokic was fun to watch, and Denver created a number of open shots using this set.

Can the bench save the day once again?

The majority of Denver’s reserves were negative in the plus-minus department tonight, primarily due to a less-than-stellar third and fourth quarter stint. Plumlee got into early foul trouble, Lyles struggled to match up with Meyers Leonard and Aminu, and only Morris seemed to play well consistently.

Another thing that happened: Craig Sager night

Tonight was a great night around the NBA. Craig Sager passed away last year after his battle with cancer, and as such a visible icon around the NBA, he touched many people’s lives during his time on the NBA circuit. His iconic sense of fashion was celebrated by the NBA tonight, as NBA coaches and broadcast teams dressed in some of the flashiest court side outfits I have ever seen.

ESPN

This is awesome, and it goes to show that basketball can do more than just be a source of entertainment. The game consistently unites people, and the legacy Craig Sager left behind has turned into a cancer research awareness and fund. Good on the NBA to pay tribute to a legend.