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Sixth Man: Denver’s key factors, and a vent session about what we saw from Damian Lillard

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Jokic, MPJ, and Denver’s role players were too much for the Blazers last night, but what we saw from Damian Lillard deserves respect.

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

Game 5 between the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers was an absolute thriller. We saw incredible passes, unbelievable shots, but most importantly Denver’s role players stepped up. The guard play of Monte Morris and Austin Rivers was a prominent factor in Denver’s victory. They combined for 46 points and 8 threes between the two.

Nikola Jokic willed his team through fatigue dropping a near triple-double of 38 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists. Michael Porter Jr. demonstrated his star abilities on Tuesday. He pledged a better performance and did not disappoint. He recorded 26 points on 10-13 from the field and 3-5 from beyond the arc. It was a complete and energized performance from him as he also hauled 12 rebounds and was Denver’s leader in plus/minus at +11.

Before I dissect the Nuggets side of things, I’d like to be transparent about the story of the game in Damian Lillard. I apologize if you’re getting tired of hearing about his heroics, but here is a Nugget fan’s perspective about last night:


Damian Lillard deserves his respect

There might not be one truly effective word to describe Lillard’s production last night, so I will just give my opinion. As I reflect, I think that was the best performance I’ve ever seen out of one person. I wasn't around for the Chamberlain, Bird, Magic, or Jordan shows so bear with me. Surely, people have scored more, but there has not been anyone who scored 55 points and 10 assists in the playoffs. He also broke an NBA playoff record with 12 threes.

Those are just numbers, but he not only passed but broke the eye test. Everybody in the world knew who and where he was taking the shot, and sometimes Denver defenders couldn’t have played better defense but it didn't matter. His clutch shooting was absolutely absurd, which is why I now believe he is in the Michael Jordon and Kobe Bryant category when it comes to the clutch gene. Let me repeat. Not as a player overall but just the clutch gene. Most of the time when I see a star performance like that, I get a little upset because my team cannot stop them. Last night, I was in pure awe and was actually thankful I was able to witness it. I probably have those positive feelings because the Nuggets won, but nevertheless what a spectacle we witnessed on Tuesday.

I see Nugget fans with split feelings about Lillard and I understand. Many respect his game, but some grow tired of it because of how he exploits the free-throw line. Here are my two cents. I respect the hell out of Damian Lillard. I’ve been a Nugget fan my entire life, so I know how grueling it can be to be a fan of a smaller market team. We often don’t get the respect we deserve and neither does Portland. Not just from what the media says, but how NBA players view our market. Damian has given the Blazers faithful everything they could hope for with the roster they have. They reached a Western Conference Finals, but never a Finals appearance because of those who surround Lillard. He has encountered multiple opportunities to leave for a larger market or a super team, yet he stays in Portland and gives his all every night. On the other hand, Denver fans saw their superstar Carmelo Anthony leave town, not because the team wasn’t winning, but because he wanted a larger market. Damian is adamant he wants to stay in Portland, and I love it because he has been under immense pressure to leave and he hasn’t.

As it pertains to his tricks to get to the foul line, don’t hate the player hate the game. Do I like it? Absolutely not. That call he influenced on Austin Rivers at the end of the 4th was questionable at best, and definitely induced some yelling at my television. Be that as it may, that is the way the NBA is heading, and it has been leaning that way for years now. Most, if not all, NBA players do the same and if they don’t they often do not get the call. If there is any blame it should be the responsibility of the referees. Players should not have to flop for them to see a foul, but as we saw last night it definitely works. This is the playoff so whatever it takes to win, players will and should do it. Denver was not getting any fouls as Portland was enticing calls from the refs. Then later in the game, Denver figured it out and started flopping a bit and they got calls. I strongly wish this wasn’t the way the game is played today but it is. If referees are going to allow and seemingly encourage it, then how can we expect players to avoid that type of play when it is helping them succeed?

Another reason why I respect Lillard is because he is a silent assassin. I have zero issues with anyone who yells or flexes after they hit a big shot. Believe me, when I’m at the gym and if I’m lucky enough to hit a clutch shot, everybody will hear me. Last night, when Lillard hit about as many clutch shots as I’ve ever seen, I didn’t see him showboat once. Maybe he did and I didn’t see it, but I’ve watched him for several years and he is known for hitting playoff buzzer-beaters and presenting his stoic, unphased look. He fully understood the type of performance he displayed, but he expected that of himself and immediately focused on the next play. When asked about his performance after the game, he said none of it mattered because they didn't win the game.

He is a humble superstar who is grateful for the position he is in. I do not attempt to push my thoughts onto others as if they should be shared by everyone. I understand this is a very competitive playoff series, and it is difficult to share a positive sentiment about someone who is annihilating your team. Respect is earned not given, and if Damian hasn’t earned his respect there isn’t anything more he can do at this point.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game Five Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Denver’s key factors

Now I switch to my favorite portion of last night. That Nuggets win. There are so many teams in all sports, that would fold after those crushing blows from an opponent. Austin Rivers's reaction when Lillard finally missed a shot said it all last night. He looked to sky and said, “Thank God.” Denver knew there was very, very little they could do to stop Lillard, yet they focused on themselves instead of the opponent and capitalized on the offensive end.

Nikola Jokic was the star for the Nuggets again tonight but he finally got some help. His near triple-double of 38 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists will be overshadowed by Dame’s heroics but they should not be because he led the winning effort. This game was reminiscent of 2019’s 4OT game in Portland when it seemed Jokic was too fatigued to help squeak out a victory. Although you could tell he was a bit fatigued, it did not stop him from controlling the game. He scored or assisted on 22 points in the 4th, OT, and 2OT, including an incredible pass to MPJ for the biggest shot of the game.

Not enough is being said for the shape Jokic is in right now. People laugh and poke fun at his physique, but deep down those people know this. There is no chance they could play 46 minutes of NBA action, chase Damian Lillard in high screen and roll action, and still have the energy to drop 38/11/9. He is taking a team starting 3rd string guards in the playoffs and carrying them to 120+ point efforts. What a player. What a season. MVP.

Furthermore, much has been said for the disappearance in Game 4 for Michael Porter Jr. but he silenced that crowd, including myself, last night. He was incredibly active and focused on impacting the game in a positive way. He shot 10-13 from the floor and 3-5 from three. That means he missed all of 3 shots last night and 2 of them were threes. He is one of the most efficient players in the NBA, even when he has off nights, but how he imposed his will was a welcome sight. He noticed Powell was being physical and distracting his game in Game 4. Last night, he used Powell’s physicality and aggression against him while controlling the ball and getting to the spots where he is most effective. When a smaller man was on him, he used his size, drove into the lane, or rose up to hit the shot.

My favorite part of his performance last night was rebounding. It’s the second-best part of his game because he can be a walking double-double every night if he is aggressive in the paint. Portland has secured many clutch offensive rebounds in this series, so MPJ’s activity on the glass saved a lot of possessions for Denver. Five minutes of OT is not a lot of time to put up numbers, but he hauled two essential rebounds in 2OT which tells me he wasn’t as fatigued, and he stayed focused throughout the game. Loved his performance last night, and I look forward to many more.

Guard play

Another reason Denver ensured the win last night was because of their guard scoring. Monte Morris was fantastic, and Austin Rivers is the unexpected gift that keeps on giving. Both are capable defenders, but nobody has a shot against Dame the way he’s playing, so it is crucial they score and they did so last night. Monte poured in a career-high 28 points with 4 threes, and Rivers dropped 18 with 4 threes as well.

Monte played 41 minutes and Rivers 47 so whenever Denver needed effective guard play Michael Malone looked to them in the biggest moments of the season. Monte is starting to play like the guy we all know and love. He’s such a solid midrange shooter and last night he also excelled from the three-point line. He contributed with aggressive drives to the rim and was not phased by the gravity of the moment. Rivers also hit multiple clutch shots in this game including a massive three late in the 4th, but it was his 1st quarter scoring that energized Denver early.

As I said in my last piece, whoever won the 1st quarter has won each game in this series. Denver jumped out to a 13-point lead in the 1st and they needed every bit of it. It’s not the most important quarter of the game, but it is very essential for both teams because it stimulates early confidence in players to think “I’m on tonight.” For instance, MPJ got off to a hot start and he was able to keep that production and energy throughout the game.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game Five Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Tuesday’s intense and clutch victory hopefully will serve as a confidence boost for a Denver team only needing one more win to advance. I highlight Monte, Rivers, and MPJ because I think they were X-factors in Game 5, but I thought just about everybody played well. Gordon contributed with 14, 4 assists, and 10 rebounds, Markus Howard shined with three 3’s, and JaMychal Green had 7 rebounds 3 of which were offensive.

It’s a lot to ask, but if they get similar production from everybody, it might not matter what Lillard does on the other side. Every time Lillard has dropped 35+ points, Portland lost. Certainly, it’s not his fault because his role players aren’t making shots. That being said, in the three Nugget wins it is evident their role players are better. Even with all the injuries they have, they usually dominate Portland in bench scoring. Now, things could change in the next two games. McCollum, Powell, and Anthony could very well get hot and reel off two straight wins, but for now, momentum is on Denver’s side and they smell blood in the water. Game 6 Thursday 6:00 PM MT.