On the second game of a back-to-back, the Denver Nuggets didn’t have enough fuel to combat the fire that was engulfing Damian Lillard, with the Portland Trail Blazers winning 125-115 on Thursday night in Orlando.
Lillard went 11 for 18 from the 3-point line, with several shots coming from far behind the arc, on his way to 45 points in 41 minutes, helping deliver a much-needed win for his team. Gary Trent Jr. pitched in with 27 points, with seven 3-pointers, continuing his hot stretch as Portland battles to secure a postseason berth.
Michael Porter Jr. lead the Nuggets in scoring with 27, but Coach Malone gave his reserves a lot of run tonight, and they didn’t have the defensive or offensive chops to keep up against one of the best players in the league.
The Nuggets started Jerami Grant in place of Paul Millsap, opting to go with the younger option to give them more options to help on defense against Lillard and McCollum. Porter Jr. hit his first shot, knocking in a 3-pointer over Carmelo Anthony. He hit his second 3-pointer too, bringing the ball up the court after a defensive rebound and stepping into his shot. After a couple baskets for both teams, Porter Jr. made a great play, tapping a loose ball down court to avoid the Trail Blazers, then cutting through the lane in transition and finishing with his left hand through Jusuf Nurkic. Torrey Craig got his first basket on a smart play by Jokic, who recognized the size mismatch as he was guarded by Lillard near the rim, threw him a perfect pass, and Craig was able to bank it in off glass, causing Portland to call timeout with the Nuggets off to a 20-12 start.
Lillard hit back-to-back 3-pointers after the break, with the second coming from a long ways away, and the Nuggets lead evaporated as the Trail Blazers point guard single-handedly closed the gap. After a Nuggets timeout, the reserves began to check into the game, but the Trail Blazers run continued. Without scoring threats, the run continued out to 11-0 before Jokic was able to get to the free throw line. PJ Dozier got a bucket after a MPJ steal helped the Nuggets get into transition, the Nuggets first field goal in a couple minutes. The first quarter ended with Portland ahead by one, 27-26, with Lillard leading all scorers with 14 points.
Gary Trent Jr. hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and in the blink of an eye, the Nuggets were down by 8 points. Bol Bol checked in after a timeout, and was able to help force a couple missed jumpers due to his length. With Keita Bates-Diop out there, the offense was a little clunky, but Bol was able to drive the lane and finish with a dunk. Trent Jr. continued to make big plays, helping box out Porter Jr. for rebounds and helping move the ball around on offense to help Portland pad their lead to double digits.
Following a break, the starters mostly came back for both teams, and with Lillard back, you know he had to immediately toss in a 3-pointer from 30 feet. Bol Bol was able to answer with a triple from the top of the arc, but went back on defense and watched Gary Trent Jr. finish a layup behind him on a cut. Jusuf Nurkic became the first NBA player to get a poster dunk on Bol, rising up to hammer a dunk down on the Nuggets rookie. The Nuggets defense started to crack, and they gave up a few really easy baskets, as the game began to spiral out of control in the final two minutes of the first half. Jerami Grant answered an alley-oop from Lillard to Nurkic with a corner 3-pointer, but Lillard hit, yup, another 3-pointer to give the Trail Blazers a 62-49 lead going into halftime. Portland went 11 for 18 from behind the 3-point arc in the first half, just blitzing the Denver defense to help them have a comfortable lead.
Jerami Grant started the third quarter with a 3-pointer from the right wing, and the starters had nice defensive energy to start the second half. Morris was able to counter a Zach Collins triple, but CJ McCollum hit one of his own to keep the lead at 13. Jokic picked up his eleventh assist on a strong drive to the rim, finding Grant for an easy dunk. The game got a little scrappy as both teams got a little tired, but the Nuggets started to chip away by getting defensive stops and pushing the ball in transition.
After a break in the action, some of the second unit began to take the court, which gave Mason Plumlee an opportunity to find Torrey Craig for an open 3-pointer, cutting the Trail Blazers lead to five points. The referees really bailed out the Trail Blazers on consecutive possessions, calling a ghost foul on Craig as Lillard knocked in a 3-pointer, then calling Jerami Grant for a foul as he tried to get position on offense.
PJ Dozier made his first 3-pointer, catching a dribble handoff and pulling up for a really nice basket. The Nuggets started to get into a rhythm, with Plumlee getting space for a dunk on the next possession, then finishing an alley-oop on the next trip down the court. Lillard tried to see if he could sell another foul on a drive, and the basketball gods were of no help, as he made both freebies. Lillard missed a 3-pointer (finally), Bol tipped in his own missed shot, and after two Grant free throws, the Nuggets had cut the lead to 89-87. Portland drew up a nice play to end the quarter, and Gary Trent Jr. was able to bury a 3-pointer to inch the lead up to five right before the buzzer.
Bol started the fourth quarter with a truly unique block, stretching up high to deflect a Whiteside hook shot. The block was initially called a goaltend, but Malone challenged and the call was overturned. After a Plumlee and one, and a Porter Jr. layup to give the Nuggets the lead after his free throw, Portland brought Lillard back in the game to help stabilize the boat. At 93-92, this was the Nuggets first lead since the first quarter. The Nuggets future teamed up for a basket, with MPJ grabbing an offensive rebound, kicking out to Bol, and the big guy driving to the rim for a dunk. Plumlee hit double digits for points with a layup, drawing the foul against Anthony. Lillard and MPJ traded 3-pointers, as the Nuggets bench continued to buy time for their starters into the fourth quarter. PJ Dozier was able to knife past the defense for a left-handed layup to give the Nuggets a 106-105 lead, leading to a Portland timeout.
Apparenly Jokic isn’t playing the rest of the game? That’s the only explanation as Malone kept his All-Star center glued to the bench as the Nuggets watched Damian Lillard hit another 3-pointer to give the Trail Blazers another jolt. The timeout was exactly the right call for the Trail Blazers, as they ripped off an 11-2 run highlight by some Nurkic plays. A Gary Trent Jr. 3-pointer gave Portland a new franchise record for made 3-pointers in a game, with the bench guard and Lillard combining for 17 on their own, and the game isn’t even over. Tyler Cook checked in the game for MPJ, and while they were able to get some more points, the Trail Blazers weren’t going to be denied in a game that Malone had decided wasn’t important.
Portland finished with 23 made 3-pointers, just a devastating attack from behind the 3-point line, taking advantage of a Nuggets roster that was without Will Barton and Gary Harris. Even Torrey Craig only saw 24 minutes, and he only had three fouls once the clock hit zero.
Three Things I Saw
Malone punted to help give Jokic a breather? I’m not sure the reasoning behind why Jokic didn’t return to the game in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets are in a pretty tight battle for the 2-seed with the Clippers, and with a game against them soon, they could have been in a position where they would have been able to clinch the 2-seed. Maybe he didn’t want to reveal his hand? Maybe he wanted to help protect the franchise center? Whatever. I guess winning this game wasn’t his top priority tonight. Too bad they can’t just forfeit games before the opening tip.
Actually, no, not whatever. If you want to rest Jokic, don’t play him at all! It’s not worth the chance to have him twist an ankle, tweak his knee, or break his wrist. Why play him 24 minutes, and then decide that the final six minutes of the game is too dangerous? If Jokic is too exhausted to play, he’s been resting for nearly 30 minutes! He can’t come in and close out the game? What a baffling decision by a curious, curious man.
3-point defense? Never heard of ‘em! I will say there’s not much to do when Lillard is pulling up from 36 feet and splashing 3-pointers. Those are shots you have to live with. Gary Trent Jr. has been the best 3-point shooter in the bubble, so you know he’s going to be a threat. But those two combining for 18 3-pointers? There isn’t a defensive adjustment you can make to try to limit some of those? Unreal.
Porter Jr. puts up stats in a bad game. The stats are nice — 27 points and 12 rebounds. But to be honest, Porter Jr. had a bad game once the Trail Blazers put Trent Jr. on him. The Nuggets forward seemed like he didn’t know how to score on a smaller, aggressive defender. He got totally wiped out on the glass, he was bothered by the fact that he didn’t have an easy time dribbling against him, and he was frustrated when Trent Jr. would make a 3-pointer against him. MPJ had a great game whenever he wasn’t matched up with Trent Jr., but this was a learning experience against a different type of defender.