Heading into Game 3 of this series tied 1-1, it would have absolutely been forgivable had the Denver Nuggets lost Thursday night’s game. The Portland Trail Blazers were playing their first game at home in front of a significant number of fans since the pandemic began, and after the Nuggets won Game 2, it is generally par for the course for the Blazers to win Game 3.
Well, nobody told the Nuggets that, especially Austin Rivers.
Here are my five takeaways from an incredible 120-115 Nuggets victory to go up 2-1 in the series:
Austin Rivers is an absolute badass
With Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and P.J. Dozier already down, the Nuggets brought in Rivers, a buyout player who was traded for and cut by the Oklahoma City Thunder. It would be understandable if Nuggets fans didn’t expect a ton of production from Rivers. The Nuggets needed someone to fill those minutes as a versatile veteran who wouldn’t be afraid of the playoffs, and Rivers fit the bill.
And uh...yeah, it paid off.
What Austin Rivers just did in this game 3—21 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter and back-to-back-back triples in crunch time—is the stuff of legends. His confidence rising and firing on perimeter jumpers in the fourth quarter in a hostile environment is just something that teams never receive on the buyout market. Rivers wasn’t afraid, and the Nuggets were comfortable with him taking those shots in those situations because of it. He made the Blazers pay for not closing out harder on him. A true Rodney Hood payback special.
Nikola Jokić cannot be stopped
He will be the 2020-21 MVP for a reason. The leap Nikola Jokić has made as a confident and unrelenting scorer as turned this year into a magical moment for the Serbian big man. It has turned into an unstoppable series for Jokić thus far, who hasn’t really been doubled all series and has games of 34 points, 38 points, and now 36 points under his belt in the first three contests. Jokić has plenty of confidence when attacking both Jusuf Nurkić and Enes Kanter, so much so that the Blazers have almost cut Kanter’s minutes all the way down. Beyond those two, there’s no one else to guard Jokić on the Blazers roster.
Jokić put up 36 points on 12-of-24 from the field, 4-of-7 from three, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. He chipped in 11 rebounds and five assists. Those numbers are incredible, and they pose a major problem for the Blazers. Jokić has proven he can carry the offense efficiently throughout this series, and the Nuggets role players around him have hit plenty of shots in two of the three games, including an incredible 20-of-38 performance tonight. Can the Blazers do anything to stop the Nuggets if they’re hitting outside shots? They can’t double Jokić if that’s the case, and Jokić kills single coverage when they leave Nurkić and Kanter on an island.
The Nuggets have Portland in a bind.
The Blazers are bothering MPJ with physicality
Tonight was another example of Michael Porter Jr. needing to improve in a variety of areas to be truly helpful in clutch situations going forward. Most notable is his strength and dealing with physicality. The Blazers are doing what they can to run Porter off his spots, poke the ball free when he catches it, and stay on his hip any time he handles the basketball. He isn’t strong enough as a ball handler and decision maker yet to handle that pressure consistently, and he shot 2-of-6 from inside the arc and had three turnovers almost entirely because of it.
It’s a detail that remains important going forward. The Nuggets have taken control of this series, but they’re unlikely to get another shooting performance like they had tonight. When that shooting dries up, they need to be able to get to the rim and finish strong through contact. Porter has to be better in that regard, and it might not happen for awhile.
One more note: the Blazers attacked MPJ a lot defensively. Even over attacking Nikola Jokić at times. Porter has a lot of work to do on the defensive end as well.
Damian Lillard needs more help from his shooters
Much like Nikola Jokić, Damian Lillard is bearing a heavy load for this Blazers team. He’s the primary creator, primary scorer, and is often faced with two or three defenders every single night because of how talented he is. Lillard shot 5-of-16 from three-point range tonight, and several of the shots were incredibly difficult looks because of the distance, shooting angle, and contests from Denver. When Lillard is doing that much, he needs others to help him out. Unfortunately, the other four Blazers in the starting lineup combined to shoot 5-of-19 from three-point range, which just isn’t going to get it done against a Nuggets team playing well.
There were multiple airballs in that second half, multiple clanks on wide-open threes. Some of the poor shooting was masked by some impressive makes from Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Carmelo Anthony in the fourth quarter, but the Blazers went through some significant lulls. If the Nuggets catch fire again, it’s going to be interesting to see if the Blazers can keep pace. They appeared defeated by the moment on several occasions.
The Nuggets captured all of the momentum
It was a very impressive to see the Nuggets respond in the way that they did tonight. The Blazers came out firing early, and the Nuggets immediately responded in that first quarter behind some excellent play from Joker and Aaron Gordon. Denver set the tone that they wouldn’t go quietly into the night, and they basically led wire to wire after that.
Now, the Nuggets are up 2-1 in the series having recaptured home court advantage. Even if they lose Game 4 on Saturday, the Nuggets will still have an opportunity to win two of the next three at home to secure the series. If they win, they go up 3-1 in the series and head back to Denver win an opportunity to win the series on their home floor.
The Blazers cannot let the Nuggets go up 3-1. It would be extremely unwise. Very few teams are built to make that comeback. Portland needs to make this a 2-2 series, meaning all of the pressure is on them at this very moment.