The Denver Nuggets yielded home court advantage for the second time in the playoffs, losing 97-90 to the Portland Trail Blazers on another night that featured dismal shooting. Denver shot 6 of 29 from behind the three-point line and couldn’t buy a bucket in either half. Nikola Jokic had 16 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists, and he probably should have had a triple-double, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a poor shooting night. On the other end, the Blazers used a balanced scoring night, headlined by 20 points and 6 assists from CJ McCollum, to score just enough points to outmatch Denver.
Each team used their regular starters to begin this game, but a key difference in Portland’s defense helped stymie the Nuggets initially. Maurice Harkless traded assignments defensively with Damian Lillard and spent most of the game guarding Jamal Murray. The result? A tough contested three by Murray and not a lot beyond that. Murray started the game 1/4 from the field, including zero assists and one turnover, clearly struggling with the size and athleticism of Harkless. On the other end, the Blazers utilized a combination of attacks to score efficient baskets, from kick out threes to Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu to drives by CJ McCollum and Lillard. Enes Kanter also had success inside off drives and dishes and an and-1 off an offensive rebound. Denver’s bench, including Malik Beasley, saved the Nuggets a bit to close the quarter, but they still trailed the Blazers 28-23 after one quarter.
To start the second quarter, Torrey Craig caught an inadvertent elbow to the face from Zach Collins and was sent to the locker room after being covered in his own blood.
Torrey Craig hits his face on the leg of a teammate pic.twitter.com/tzehchHBNw— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 2, 2019
The offense collapsed with Jokic off the floor to start the second quarter, so he came in for Mason Plumlee quickly. Denver’s shooting in this quarter was very suspect, so Jamal Murray returned quickly as well, followed by his defensive shadow in Harkless. The Nuggets continued to struggle generating offense without their standard Murray-Jokic two-man game, and Murray just didn’t get a lot going until Jokic hit him with a backdoor cut to induce a Blazers timeout. That didn’t last long though. The Nuggets scored zero points in the final 4:01 of the half, and they were lucky the Blazers decided to miss most of their shots too. 12 points in the second quarter is just unforgivable. A 50-35 deficit into the half looked pretty insurmountable.
That was, until Torrey Craig’s absence was matched by Moe Harkless’ exit, who turned his ankle toward the end of the second quarter. Replacing him in the starting lineup was Jake Layman, who had fallen out of the Blazers’ playoff rotation. Murray took that opportunity to get some shots up in the third quarter to get himself going. Still, for every basket by the Nuggets, the Blazers matched. Then, Nikola Jokic nutmegged Al-Farouq Aminu for an And-1, and the tide seemed to turn just a little.
Of course, that was short lived. For the first time in these playoffs, Jokic got into foul trouble, picking up his fourth foul at around the 4:15 mark of the third quarter. At that point, the Nuggets were picking up some steam, but completely deflated in the final four minutes. Torrey Craig came in and gave the Nuggets a boost, but Denver was still down 14, 78-64 to close the third quarter.
Denver got out and blitzed the Blazers in the fourth quarter with some strong defense, but Portland quickly recovered with clutch threes by McCollum and Seth Curry, shutting down Nuggets potential runs quickly. Jokic returned at the 9:20 mark of the 4th quarter and had a positive impact, getting to the rim and generating points, whether it be by his own making or offensive rebound opportunities for teammates, including a key Millsap tip-in. The Nuggets accumulated 12 offensive rebounds in eight fourth quarter minutes, but they struggled to capitalize on most of their opportunities. Denver missed so many shots right under the rim, compounded by the fact that they missed most of their shots altogether. The Blazers pulled this one out at the end, and things spiraled with a floor altercation.
Jamal Murray struggled with the length and athleticism of Moe Harkless
As I predicted in today’s preview, Moe Harkless spent much of the game defending Jamal Murray, much in the same way that Torrey Craig defends Damian Lillard. The Nuggets and Blazers both hoped that bigger guys could counter what the lead guard wanted to do, and it worked until both guys got hurt. Murray got going a little bit in the third quarter, but his leg acted up late in the game and almost completely neutralized him on both ends.
This is a big deal for Denver. Harkless really bothered Murray and turned Denver’s offense into something not resembling offense. That’s a formula they can use for the rest of the series, and it makes things much more interesting than I thought they would be going forward.
The Blazers doubled Nikola Jokic and bet on Denver’s poor shooting
Not much to say about this other than the Nuggets needing to hit some open shots in this series. Denver couldn’t hit their open threes, going 6/29 on those shots, nor could they hit shots inside the arc either. Jokic couldn’t really find the balance between taking control of this game with his own aggression and finding open shooters. He lost the ball in the post multiple times due to the Blazers defender digging down on the post up, and his shot attempts were highly contested for the majority of the game. He will look at this film and understand the timing of Portland’s double as this series goes on, but it really comes down to trusting shooters to hit shots. They didn’t tonight, and it hurt Denver.
Many offensive rebounds and few second chance points
The Nuggets racked up 23 offensive rebounds tonight, most of those in the fourth quarter. Usually, that’s a good thing for offensive efficiency, but nobody on the roster could convert those looks consistently. Jokic had four offensive rebounds but missed his signature tap-in, while Millsap had five and Barton had four. The majority of Denver’s boards were wasted, and when the shots aren’t dropping, that tends to hurt.
The Nuggets desperately need the spacing against the Blazers in order to win games, but the shooting has a tendency to go “Jekyll and Hyde” from night to night. One night, the Nuggets are world beaters and shoot over 40 percent from beyond the arc. The next? A night like tonight that’s more dry than the Sahara desert.
Every Nugget can shoulder blame for this outside of possibly Torrey Craig. The entire roster underperformed from behind the arc, including a 2/8 performance from Murray and 0/5 from Harris. Who can Jokic pass to out of the post if no one can hit these shots?
For the Nuggets to win this series, the shooting has to show up more consistently. The Blazers don’t have an answer when it does. Most of Denver’s threes were unguarded tonight because Portland sold out on Jokic. That’s not going to work if Denver can just calm down and hit the shots they are supposed to hit at a reasonable rate.
For now though, Denver’s behind the eight ball again, and they will need to win a game on the road to retake home court advantage in this series.