The Denver Nuggets had less than two days after their epic quadruple overtime thriller against the Portland Trail Blazers to be ready for a crucial game four. Now down two games to one, a loss by the Nuggets would force them to do what only 5% of teams have done in NBA history: come back from a 3-1 deficit. Thanks to big performances from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray along with Damian Lillard being off for two and a half quarters, the Nuggets were able to secure the victory. C.J. McCollum had a big night for the Blazers and Lillard had a furious finish, but it wasn’t enough and the Nuggets hold on to win 116-112 and tie the series at two games a piece.
Jamal Murray opened the scoring for Denver with a circus shot over the backboard but the Nuggets were otherwise struggling from the field. They got their defense under them though and started creating some opportunities which worked for an early lead. Denver kept in front of Portland as the quarter progressed, getting a well rounded effort. Murray had a big dunk and Paul Millsap was making a point to be aggressive. Still, the Blazers hung close. Jokic was not doing a good job of taking care of the basketball early on, he had a pair of ugly turnovers which helped Portland get a 6-0 run. After a timeout Millsap finally stopped the bleeding by bullying his way to a shot. Despite the sloppy ball handling, the Nuggets clung to a slim lead with the quarter winding down. Lillard was bringing the full package as the point guard, hitting big shots, making nice dishes and getting big steals. Michael Malone went to the bench to close out the quarter but Lillard was on fire and took the lead back for the Blazers on an 8-0 run. The two starters on the floor for Denver, Murray and Jokic, kept the Nuggets in it, but Portland led by four after the first.
Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris opened the second quarter on the bench which left the Nuggets searching for scoring options and they used a team effort. Will Barton got a runner, Malik Beasley converted an and-one and Monte Morris knocked down a mid range jumper for Denver regain the lead. After Barton knocked down a three the Blazers had to take a timeout. McCollum went on a personal 5-0 run out of the time out to get back the lead from Portland. The Blazers got it up to a five point lead before Jokic and Murray checked back in to the game, Jokic immediately went to work on the offensive end with five quick points, but Seth Curry was knocking down threes. He hit three in a row which stymied Denver’s own offensive surge. The Nuggets were sluggish with the quarter winding down. They weren’t making good decisions on offense and playing without energy on defense. Portland got back to back possessions with offensive rebounds with putbacks, one for an and-one. The refs weren’t calling fouls and the Nuggets weren’t able to finish through contact. Luckily the Blazers went a little cold which kept Denver in it. Curry hit a ridiculous buzzer three to push the lead to six at half.
The Blazers opened the second half cold and the Nuggets starters opened with desperation. They started the half with a 8-2 run to tie the game. Portland responded with their stars, getting buckets from McCollum and Lillard. Harris came back with a crazy up and under layup. As the quarter headed toward the half way mark both teams went cold, Lillard in particular was ice cold. The Blazers had a 1-11 stretch but Denver couldn’t capitalize from distance. The Nuggets still couldn’t get anything going on offense, but luckily the Blazers kept committing silly fouls. After Enes Kanter got called for an offensive foul (his 4th) Millsap buried a three on the other end to get the Nuggets ahead by six. Malone stuck with the starters down the majority of the stretch of the third quarter. They got some key buckets late including the second time in the night Jokic went glass (in the non-intentional way). Another Joker running hook and a Mason Plumlee follow got the Nuggets up by seven and they nearly got it to ten at the end of the quarter but Barton missed a buzzer beater three.
Beasley opened the fourth with a three to push the lead to double digits after Millsap grabbed an offensive board. The rest of Denver’s starters were getting a rest as was Lillard for the Blazers. Portland was able to respond with McCollum and Rodney Hood. Denver missed a couple chances meanwhile McCollum hit back to back threes to bring the lead down to two. The Nuggets tightened up the D again but their bench unit was ice cold from the floor. Millsap drew a foul to stop the bleeding and Murray and Jokic re-entered the game. McCollum was carrying the offense all by himself on Portland’s side and the game remained close when Lillard re-entered the game at the seven minute mark. He opened by burying a long distance three after he’d been terrible from the floor the entire night but it was a sign of things to come. Denver held a two possession lead for a good three minutes but they had an opportunity to make more and couldn’t get it done. They looked a bit disoriented on offense and called a timeout after an Al-Farouq Aminu follow cut the lead to three. Under three minutes it was clear that if Portland was going to win it would be on the back of Lillard who got the ball every time down. He was red hot but the Nuggets were hitting shots as well. Jokic appeared to hurt his leg with a minute left and had to go off with the Nuggets up by six (he’d check back in very shortly). Hood continued his run of clutch play a buried a three on the other side. The Blazers got the ball back with 27 seconds left down three and Lillard got a foul but went one of two. Murray hit both free throws on two straight trips on the other end to keep the Nuggets up by four with six seconds to go. McCollum hit a long two and Murray knocked down two more free throws to ice it away. Denver wins 116-112.
Best matchup: Paul Millsap vs Al-Farouq Aminu
Millsap was huge for the Nuggets tonight. He carried the offense early and was incredibly efficient from the floor. He did start to fall off in the second half but still put in an outstanding performance on both ends of the court and ended up with a double double (21 points, 10 rebounds). Aminu meanwhile gave the Blazers a ton of energy and had a big night on the stat board himself (19 points, 8 rebounds). He wasn’t able to slow Millsap much on the defensive end, which has been a theme of this series, and he didn’t have his three going tonight but he did give a the Blazers some life on more than one occasion.
Main thing I noticed: Will Barton had huge moments again
For the second straight game Denver got big buckets from William B. Buckets esquire at the end of the game. He hit two huge threes in the closing moments of the fourth quarter that put the distance between the Nuggets and Blazers that Portland would never recover. It was an up and down night otherwise for Will, who needed 14 shots to score eleven points, but you hope that knocking down these shots in big moments are one of the steps towards him getting back to being the big time player we all know he can be.
Closing thought: Right where you want them
This now becomes a three game series with two of the games in Denver. The Nuggets lost game two like they lost game one to the San Antonio Spurs, at home behind some ridiculously bad shooting. Now that they stole game four (like they did against the Spurs) they no longer have to win a game in Portland. Denver showed an incredible amount of resilience on the two game swing in Portland, nearly stealing game three in quadruple overtime and coming back to win game four on the road. Now they need to bring the same intensity to put the pressure back on the Blazers and make them go back home for game six facing elimination.