• Did the Nuggets lose intentionally again?
  • Damian Lillard is very good at basketball
  • Michael Porter Jr. stays locked in despite extra defensive attention
  • Bol Bol plays well in extended minutes
  • It’s time to be worried about the injured starters

The Denver Nuggets lost on Thursday night, but it wasn’t a bad loss. It certainly didn’t have that feeling, given how the Nuggets played through about 40 minutes of the game. Michael Porter Jr. was once again going off, while Jerami Grant had 22 points in the starting lineup and Nikola Jokic racked up 13 assists through three quarters.

Then, the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter happened, and Nuggets fans started asking some questions.

Here are my five takeaways from Denver’s loss to the Portland Trail Blazers (apologies for being a little late):

Did the Nuggets lose intentionally or were they trying to rest Nikola Jokic?

It wasn’t Nikola Jokic’s best performance through three quarters of an NBA game, but it certainly wasn’t his worst. In 24 minutes, Jokic scored just eight points on 3/8 from the field but dished out an absurd 13 assists. He left the court with 4:42 left in the third quarter with the Nuggets down 80-72, and with the bench keeping things close in the beginning of the fourth, fans expected Jokic back in to try and close out the game like against Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

Jokic never reentered the contest, nor did several Nuggets starters, and the gassed bench unit eventually ran out of tricks as the Nuggets lost the game. This was something that Michael Malone has done with other starters—especially when the bench is rolling and playing well—but never with Jokic. Nikola is always out there when crunch time happens. He’s one of the best clutch performers in the NBA.

It begs the question: did the Nuggets try to lose? Or was Malone just resting Jokic in the fourth quarter because he felt like he could do so? For what it’s worth, Malone says this was purely a rest decision, and that he didn’t want to play Jokic at all in this one given the other starters being out and the heavy load Jokic consistently bears. If that was the case, it’s curious that Jokic played in the first place.

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Damian Lillard is very good at basketball

Lillard has struggled against the Nuggets this season. They were the team that broke his hot streak in the middle of January before the pandemic shut things down, and Torrey Craig has done an excellent job for most of the season matching up with Lillard’s high level of shotmaking and perimeter creation.

That went out the window today.

In 41 minutes, Lillard went haywire, racking up 45 points on 13/21 shooting and 11/18 from three-point range, attempting just three shots inside the arc all day and making two of them. He added 12 assists to his tally and had just two turnovers. Basically, he gave the work to anyone who asked for it. Unfortunately for Torrey Craig, he was in Lillard’s way today and was flattened by a semi truck driving in around Dame Time.

The Nuggets missed Gary Harris today. He would have been another player that could have helped out, as would Will Barton and Jamal Murray. Not having perimeter weapons for Dame to guard on the other end made his work defensively a lot more simple, as he saved all of his energy for certified bucket getting.

Michael Porter Jr. also remains great at basketball

Jokic may have been rested down the stretch, but Michael Porter Jr. was on the floor for most of the fourth quarter. He made several threes, was imposing on the glass, and helped keep the Nuggets in the thick of the game until about the 4:30 mark when Denver was down just two points. At that point, the Nuggets bench was gassed, started making bad decisions, and the team lost control.

However, it doesn’t negate the fact that Porter was special once again. He had 27 points and 12 rebounds, and he was once again making some impressive shots.

His confidence in the pull-up jumper continues to grow, and it’s that weapon that will take him to the next level of stardom. He has the physical tools to dominate inside as a scorer and rebounder, but if he makes the difficult quality of jumpers he took today with consistency, the Nuggets are looking at something very, very special.

There were some words spoken about Blazers wing Gary Trent Jr. today and how he physically bothered Porter throughout the game. I will just let head coach Michael Malone do the talking on that one.

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Bol Bol got some extended run and made the most of his time

The numbers are pedestrian at nine points, five rebounds, a steal, and a block in Bol’s 25 minutes off the bench today, but Bol had some very impressive plays on both ends of the floor. On defense, he blocked Hassan Whiteside at the rim as Whiteside tried to back him down. The block was originally whistled as a goaltending call, but Michael Malone challenged the call and got it overturned as a clean block.

On the other end, Bol got Whiteside again, this time on a dribble drive from the three-point line where he drove to the rim and slammed it down. He dusted Whiteside out there, showcasing his perimeter skills and tight handle in the process.

He also hit another three, and it’s becoming increasingly clear just how interesting a player Bol could be in a regular role. As he gains more confidence and his teammates continue to feed him some possessions offensively, it wouldn’t be surprising if Bol goes on a little run. I don’t know if that’s during Denver’s time in the bubble or at some point next year, but Bol’s talent level just keeps showing through at various moments. If he puts it all together, it’s going to be very exciting.

He did get dunked on by Jusuf Nurkic though. That was a tough moment.

It’s time to be worried about the injured starters

Murray, Harris, and Barton were out again today. Paul Millsap sat out for rest purposes as well. This was the fourth game in a row Denver’s starting guard trio has sat out, and tonight, the Nuggets depth began to show some cracks. Torrey Craig and Monte Morris weren’t as effective as in previous games, Mason Plumlee started the game slowly before getting his second wind in the second half, and while Bol was good, there’s only so much he and Keita Bates-Diop can do consistently.

The Nuggets need to get healthy again, but there are no indications that they are close to that. Malone told his team before the game today that they need to keep the train moving, and that Denver’s returning starters will get on it when they can. That’s concerning rhetoric given that Denver needs these guys to be ready pretty soon. The playoffs start on August 17th, which is now in 10 days. How much of a warmup period will those starters have before they will be called to playing heavy minutes at playoff intensity?

Almost as importantly, how in the world will Denver integrate three starters when Porter has firmly established himself as someone the Nuggets can’t take out of the lineup now?

I have no idea, and the longer the wait drags on, the crazier the answer might be.