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Five takeaways from a terrible Game 4 loss to tie Nuggets-Blazers series at 2-2

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Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images
  • The Blazers were fighting for their playoff lives
  • The Nuggets didn’t rise to Portland’s intensity/execution level
  • The star battle between Dame and Joker was lost by both guys
  • Norman Powell was the difference maker
  • It’s time to find out if MPJ wants the smoke

Well, that sucked.

The Denver Nuggets clearly didn’t come prepared for Game 4 against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday afternoon. It was a disappointing effort in a game that felt like it was over roughly one minute into the third quarter. Everything went Portland’s way (outside of one key factor) and the Nuggets just never pressured the Blazers in this game in any concerning way.

Here are my five takeaways:


The Blazers were fighting for their playoff lives

From the opening tip, it was clear that the Blazers were going to play with a level of intensity and execution on their sets and defensive coverages that they hadn’t reached for the entire series. The Blazers cut Enes Kanter out of the rotation entirely and decided to go small with their bench unit, making life difficult on the Nuggets reserves, including Monte Morris as a driver.

The Blazers were executing well on both ends of the floor. Though Damian Lillard had an off shooting night, he and CJ McCollum had 18 assists between the two of them. They leveraged the Nuggets defense into uncomfortable positions, and the Blazers players made their shots around Lillard and McCollum consistently, shooting 50% from the field and 36% from three. That three-point percentage was higher prior to garbage time as well.

The Blazers knew they couldn’t go down 3-1 in this series and expect to make a comeback. This was their Game 7, and they played like it.

The Nuggets did not match the Blazers’ level

There are a number of ways to evaluate a team’s performance from game to game. Often, the team that simply shoots better than the other will prevail. That was the case tonight.

However, it was about more than that on Denver’s end. Not only did they shoot poorly, but they shot so poorly that they couldn’t compensate in other areas to make up the difference. They still managed to have 15 offensive rebounds, but they still turned the ball over more than Portland and had three fewer trips to the free throw line. Denver didn’t get enough from anybody on the roster, let alone their stars, and it was disappointing to see them roll over in the third quarter the way that they did.

To be clear, it shouldn’t be unexpected that the Blazers won this game after dropping two in a row, but the Nuggets facilitated an easy victory for them with poor execution of their own.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Lillard and Jokić each lost the star battle

It’s difficult to say who between Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokić had a better game, and better is probably the incorrect word choice anyway. Neither brought anything close to their A games tonight. Lillard scored 10 points on 1-of-10 from the field, balanced out by a 7-of-7 performance at the free throw line. He did also have 10 assists though, as the Nuggets continued to work to get the ball out of his hands and force others to beat them. That’s exactly what happened tonight with Lillard’s teammates picking him up. One of those teammates, Jusuf Nurkic, made Jokić work on both ends of the floor a lot.

Jokić didn’t exactly have the same luxury of teammates stepping up around him, so his struggles appear more pronounced. With just 16 points on 7-of-18 from the field and 1-of-2 from the free throw line, Joker had a rough game as a scorer after games of 34, 38, and 36 points through the first three games of the series. The difference between the two teams: there were no magical performances around Jokić to pick him up. Michael Porter Jr. had just three points on three shots, while Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris each tied with 12 points as the second leading scorer. That just isn’t going to cut it.

Welcome to the series, Norman Powell

The newest Portland Trail Blazers acquisition was curiously absent for the first three games of the series, scoring 10, 15, and 18 points in Games 1, 2, and 3. That upward trend continued into this game though, with Powell stringing together a hyper efficient scoring performance of 29 points on 11-of-15 from the field. Powell attacked whoever was across from him consistently, mostly Facundo Campazzo in the second half, and that matchup proved to be the difference in this game.

The Blazers went out of their way to add a third guard scorer to Lillard and McCollum in the starting unit to take advantage of teams like Denver that would overplay Lillard and send multiple players his way. The Nuggets were always operating at a disadvantage guarding Powell because of their rotations on Lillard, and Powell truly made Denver pay for it this time around.

It’s time for Michael Porter Jr. to step up

Even though Jokić struggled in Game 4, his work in Games 1, 2, and 3 as a scorer keep his averages at 31.0 points per game while shooting 53.9% from the field, 45.5% from three-point range, and 90.0% from the free throw line. It’s difficult to foresee him improving that much beyond those numbers as a scorer, meaning it will have to come from somewhere else.

After scoring three points on three shots, Michael Porter Jr. is now averaging 15.3 points per game while shooting 47.9% from the field and 33.3% from three-point range. That just isn’t going to cut it. The Nuggets are lucky they got the Austin Rivers performance in Game 3, because it’s one of two 20+ point performances around Jokić in the entire series. Porter had 25 in Game 1, but since then, he has scored 18 in Game 2, 15 in Game 3, and now just three points in Game 4.

However unfair it may be to ask Porter to be the guy in a difficult, contentious playoff series, that’s the burden a star must bear. Porter struggled to find shot attempts in Game 4 with Norman Powell stuck in his jersey for the majority of the game. Jokić credited Porter after Game 3 with being a great decoy, but the Nuggets need more than that from him. They need Porter to be an instigator, a big time player, a star who can’t be taken out of the game by Norman Powell.

Porter’s hands and overall strength with the basketball have been a weakness of his throughout his career, and the Blazers have highlighted those weaknesses in this series. Every time Porter touches the ball, Powell, Covington, and others are clawing at it, preventing him from dribbling into shots and finding any sort of comfort level. If the Nuggets are going to win this series, they need Porter to rise above those difficulties for the rest of the series.

If he wants to be known as a star in this league, he can’t be held to three points on three shots. Ever.