After an emotional three hours of basketball, we can finally exhale Denver.
The 200th franchise playoff game for the Nuggets might have been the most exciting one. Denver secured Game 5 with a 147-140 2OT win against Portland. Damian Lillard was “superhuman” as Michael Malone pointed out after the game. He recorded the first-ever 55 point, 10 assist game in playoff history. As unbelievable as his performance was, Denver responded with each body blow by Lillard.
Jokic was determined throughout his 46 minutes of play with 38 points, 9 assists, and 11 rebounds. Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. absolutely flourished tonight combining for 54 points.
Here are my five takeaways from this incredible Game 5:
Damian Lillard is unbelievable
As mind-blowing as that win was for Denver, he was the story tonight. Lillard is one of those players where you expect every shot to go in, but there’s always that little glimmer of hope he might miss. That did not happen tonight. He registered the most three-pointers in playoff history with 12, and half of them were some of the most difficult and clutch shots you will ever see. Every time Denver backed Portland against the wall, Lillard broke free in incredible fashion.
Many will question why Denver didn’t foul Dame every time they were up by three late in the game. Malone answered post-game by stating it was out of respect for Lillard. He didn’t want defenders to foul Lillard beyond the arc predicting he would draw 3 free throws or possibly a 4 point play. In fact, Lillard drew a 4-point play possibility in the second quarter that changed the entire tide of the game. The Nuggets were up by 22 and that shot seemed to give them momentum to close the lead.
That being said, something must change when defending Lillard. Whether it's denying more, fouling, or forcing him to drive, I don’t know but it is unlikely Denver can survive another 50 point performance from him.
Michael Porter Jr. was excellent
This might have been his best effort of the season considering the gravity of the moment, and the pressure from past performances. It wasn’t his highest-scoring game, but he was aggressive offensively and on the glass which was a huge factor for Denver. He ended up scoring 26 with 12 rebounds along with his most clutch shot ever hitting a corner three with over a minute left in 2OT.
Tonight, he realized he was often the taller, bigger figure and capitalized on it. He controlled the ball better, wasn’t settling from the perimeter as much, and took advantage of mismatches. An underrated part of his game is his ability to rebound. He is a walking double-double every night, and tonight he channeled his aggression and tenacity in the paint. Unlike his previous two games, he imposed his will on his opponents, and without his great play Denver would have lost. Fantastic performance from him tonight.
Big Play Tae showed out
Monte Morris scored a career-high 28 points along with 5 assists in the most critical game of the season. Lillard was the most clutch player on the floor, but Monte was a close second. He hit a total of 5 free throws at the end of the 4th, OT, and 2OT. If he misses just one of those, Denver most likely loses because of the zone Lillard was in.
The two-man play between him and Jokic was excellent. He looked so comfortable and patient in the pick and roll which is what Denver has yearned for since the loss of Jamal Murray. Morris also went 4-9 from three-point land and attacked the paint inducing 10 made free throws. He played effective situational defense in spots and came down with clutch rebounds towards the end of the game. When Denver needed a calm, collected presence, Morris was right there welcoming the pressure.
This plagued both teams tonight, but at times it seemed Denver could not defend without fouling. Some of the calls were questionable including the massive call on Rivers fouling a Lillard three, but most of them had merit. Denver has to exercise better restraint in some of those situations. They actually ended up shooting three more free throws than Portland, but some of those were because of late-game fouling. Porter and Rivers tallied 5 personal fouls, and Gordon 4, but the most important was Nurkic fouling out again.
He did not foul out once in the regular season but has already done so three times in this series. When he is in the game, Portland defends the paint much better. So every time he fouls out, it opens the floor for Denver and it showed again tonight. The Nuggets should make a concerted effort to get him in foul trouble every night because when he enters the game, Denver seems more timid in the paint.
1st quarter performance was huge
The team who won the first quarter has been victors in each game. Denver jumped out to a 38-25 lead at the end of the 1st thanks to energized and effective play from Rivers, Porter, and Gordon. Denver shot 7-13 from beyond the arc on two threes from Gordon, Porter, and Rivers. It got the crowd motivated early and infused confidence throughout the team.
The Nuggets are not built to come from behind compared to Portland. Denver can hit threes at a high clip, but it is often inconsistent which is why they like to rely on paint scoring. No matter what type of lead you have, it never feels safe against this Portland squad. Not only do they have several three-point shooters, but they have the most clutch player in the league in Lillard.
We expect Portland to come with better energy in the 1st at home, but the Nuggets want to avoid a significant deficit as well. The 4th quarter and overtimes are the most important quarters, but whoever wins the first is winning the game in this series. We will see if that trend continues in Portland on Thursday.