What a heartbreaking loss for the Denver Nuggets.
Already exhausted heading into Game 3 on the road, Nikola Jokic and company weathered a game that lasted 68 minutes long, each minute more crucial than the last, and still they came up short.
Jokic played 65 freaking minutes of basketball tonight, posted a triple-double with 33 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists, but missed a free throw with under 10 seconds on the clock in the fourth overtime that would have tied the game and given the Nuggets another shot at grabbing a 2-1 lead in the series. Instead, Denver has to try to do it again on Sunday evening in what will certainly be a must-win scenario.
CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard were phenomenal for the Trail Blazers. The backcourt duo combined for 69 points, but it was Rodney Hood who came off the bench in 4OT that really put Denver away. Hood finished with 19, and Enes Kanter pitched in 18 points and 15 boards of his own.
Jamal Murray also had a fantastic game on offense and was clutch in the second quarter when Portland was starting to pull away. Murray scored 34 on the night and was instrumental in the second half and overtime periods by hitting several clutch shots. Unfortunately, it was clear the Blazers’ game plan was to target him on defense with Mo Harkless and Rodney Hood, and it worked.
Both teams had opportunities to win, but some missed shots by Lillard, Murray and Jokic combined with some funky officiating (hello jump ball) and horrible execution down the stretch set up the extra 20 minutes of action.
In the end, it was the Trail Blazers who were able to pull away.
Nikola Jokic was great, Murray was good
Nikola Jokic kinda no-showed to start the game, but was simply phenomenal in the second half. He had just six points in the first half, and at some point in the third quarter came out and decided to take the game into his own hands. From there he took over in every way imaginable. Tonight was the first time Malone started Jokic in the fourth quarter, but unfortunately for him he got 20 extra minutes than he bargained for as in close playoff games he absolutely cannot leave the court (boo to anyone who thinks he’s not in shape. He is). Still, he finished +5 on the night.
Murray also had a great game and hit some momentum-changing shots, but the Blazers exploited his defensive weakness time and time again. When Rodney Hood checked into the game in 4OT, he went straight for Murray and scored easily on him twice, causing him to be pulled from the game on the next defensive possession. It’s something that he won’t be able to fix overnight, but if Murray really wants to elevate his game to the next level this offseason, that has to be high on the list.
Will Barton had a game - for good and for bad
Will Barton brought the full “thrill” experience tonight. He had some egregious, boneheaded plays: turnovers on fast breaks, stepping out of bounds, and failing to rotate on defense (this happened multiple times in overtime, including one that led directly to a McCollum). At times, he looked like a real liability.
But the reality is without Barton the Nuggets aren’t even in the game. For everything bad he did he had just as many positives. He was scoreless at the half, yet came out and hit some big shots in the fourth quarter and overtimes, finishing with 22 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. When he was locked in on defense he disrupted passes and had some good stops on CJ as well. Overall, not pretty by any means but still a step in the right direction.
This team is resilient
Make no mistake, this is a tough loss to swallow. Denver could have had this game if it weren’t for some costly mistakes in overtime and some untimely missed shots. But the Nuggets lost, and now they face digging a deeper hole on Sunday.
But this kind of adversity isn’t new for the Nuggets. They overcame injuries all season long. They were down 2-1 against the Spurs, came back with a statement win in Game 4, then sealed the deal in Game 7. Tonight they came back from behind multiple times. Now they get a Game 4 in another hostile environment with fatigue being a real factor. That’s no excuse. Adversity has defined this entire season. It’s only appropriate that it will define this series.