Jokic, Nuggets Can Trail Blazers at Ball Arena
Jokic, Nuggets Can Trail Blazers at Ball Arena
The Portland Trail Blazers concluded a tough six-game road trip with a 120-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night. Damian Lillard did everything he could to rescue his team from the Denver offense, but even his 34 points would not be enough. Denver was too big, too talented and too much for the Blazers overnight, especially with Portland playing off an injury-reduced bench.
Nikola Jokic scored 29 with 8 rebounds and 11 assists in the win. Jamal Murray added 25 points and 12 assists.
The loss drops the Blazers to 17-16 on the season, 2-4 since coming off a friendly at the Moda Center a week and a half ago.
The game got off to a rough start for the Blazers. Michael Porter, Jr. hit a three, then Nikola Jokic scored, meaning Portland’s two biggest threats were wide open early. A turnover on Portland’s next possession didn’t help. Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic scored for the Blazers, but it was a pinch against Jokic’s passing attack. Denver’s offense hit on nearly all cylinders.
A three-pointer by Nurkic and a scrappy play by Josh Hart kept Portland respectable, or at least in touch. But the second Portland subbed Nurkic, Aaron Gordon hit a sick reverse layup over Drew Eubanks and then Jokic took it low in the lane for a big shot. The latter was lost, but the writing on the wall might as well have been inscribed in neon. Denver led 15-13 at 6:00, and Portland was lucky to be so close.
The Blazers threw a zone midway through the quarter to try to slow Denver down, but Jokic single-handedly destroyed it by stepping up the middle and passing. Or writing down Or whatever he wanted.
At the same time, Portland started turning the ball over, leading to Denver run-outs, which the Blazers couldn’t defend. Denver started soaking the paint off the rim. Quick scoring by Eubanks, Hart and Damian Lillard helped the Blazers keep pace, but again, Portland’s respectability hung in the balance. Lillard was scoring well heading to the basket, but nothing else was going right for the Blazers.
Denver led 32-27 after one. Portland’s 55% shooting in the fourth saved them, but they allowed Denver 60%.
Despite having a name more fitting for Halloween than Christmas, Bones Hyland opened the scoring for Denver in the second period, extending its lead to 7 with a chip shot, then to 11 a minute later with a three deep. Jamal Murray started giving assists to streaking drivers around the same time, and the threat of an explosion became more of a reality.
Portland tried to get back into it by inserting Nurkic back in and running the offense through him. It wasn’t a terrible bet, especially since his 3-pointers weren’t going down. But the Nurkic offense is a slow-developing offense. It’s hard to climb back playing at a snail’s pace even when the shots are falling. They didn’t. This ended up turning the match into a stalemate at best. At least the defense improved slightly with Nurk back. A mid-quarter scoring drought for both teams kept Portland from falling any further behind.
Denver had a scary moment when Jokic went down with 6:34 left in the second. He got up and seemed to be fine, but was upset about the lack of a foul on the play. The whistles began to accompany Portland as the second period unfolded. Finally, the Blazers had found a way to crawl into it: one point at a time. Despite hitting roughly zero field goals, Portland only trailed 38-43 at the time.
Lillard brought the Blazers even closer at 5:40 when he drove, tried to dunk, then took a rim check and (he thought) drew a foul. While complaining to the refs, he ran to the left corner of the coffin, asked for the ball and sank a contested three to teach the universe a lesson. A dunk by Simons one play later brought the Blazers within one, 45-46, with 5:20 left.
Portland’s scoring was hot for the remainder of the period, but its defense continued to be porous. At least they stopped Denver’s free pass. Reduced to iso dribble attempts, the Nuggets looked ordinary, not world-beating. When Lillard hit another three with 3:13 left, Portland finally led 54-52. When Denver overplayed him, he simply hit shooters with the pass rush. The entire second half of the second quarter turned into an extended “Nuh-Uh” from Dame to the Denver wide area. When all else fails, the Super Friends call on the Man of Steel.
By halftime, Lillard had 20 points on 6-11 shooting and the Blazers improbably led 64-58.
The Nuggets tried to straighten out the score coming out of the locker room by going to their bigs inside. They put the ball in Jokic’s hands with a side dish from Porter, Jr. They concentrated on getting her in the lane, either to score or draw fouls on Nurkic, Portland’s only credible big defender tonight. It was pure game basketball, and considering the matchups, it worked pretty well.
After Porter, Jr. had shredded the Blazers inside with three layups and three free throws, hit Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a corner three with 7:42 left. That put Denver ahead again, 71-69.
Portland responded to Denver’s run by trying to pull back three points at a time. Unfortunately, the shooting went cold and the attack slid completely off the road. Denver’s interior scoring continued. Then they found open three-point shooters and started putting that tactic in Portland’s face. A three by Porter, Jr. at 4:52 it ended a 21-5 run for Denver, leaving them within 12, 81-69.
Lillard hit a three in retaliation, then set up Josh Hart for a layup. The Blazers weren’t going away quietly. But the Nuggets were pulling away hard, as Portland couldn’t stop the Nuggets from sinking over their heads on a semi-continuous basis.
Denver outscored the Blazers 35-16 in the third and led 93-80 heading into the final period. After scoring 20 in the first two quarters, Lillard’s tally was 24 after three. Without him going bananas, the Blazers had no chance.
Lillard sat down for a rest at the top of the fourth period. In his absence, Anfernee Simons hit a three and then assisted Keon Johnson for a chippy. Those shots pushed Portland back to 11, which seemed like a manageable number, all things considered.
Portland also reverted to a tried and tested tactic, trying to push the ball inside, hoping to blow the whistle and score with the clock running out. It kind of worked: Grant and Lillard took trips to the line, but Denver was ready this time. They forced turnovers, or at least stalled the Blazers’ offense long enough to make them fight the clock. Simons ended up having to take shot clock batters, none of which fell, all of which made him look bad.
Portland got a short break at 7:19 when Grant hit a three and Porter, Jr. ran under him in the closing of a Flagrant One. Grant hit the ensuing foul shot for the four-point play and Portland got the ball back. It could have been a 6-7 point drive down the stretch if the Blazers had made their next shot, but Nurkic was whistled for a moving screen, picking up his fifth foul. He won the sixth on the next play, a Lillard layup conversion. Portland trailed by 11 with 7:00 left, but without their big man, their defense had no chance. Opportunity had turned to tragedy.
Lillard did his best, hitting a contested three, but missed a jumper on the next possession and then got caught by two defenders on a 24-second clock violation. In between, Jokic hit Gordon for a double-team dunk. After that, Jokic scored twice in single coverage. Portland defended well on the next possession, forcing Jamal Murray to make a desperation three that hurt, but Hart fouled him late, allowing Murray to hit three free throws. That pretty much sealed the game. The final minutes dragged on with missed calls, reviews, Lillard strikes and other gimmicks, but none of that was going to change the inevitable outcome.
Until next time
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game to come!
The Blazers take the weekend off before welcoming Charlotte Hornets at the Moda Center on Monday night with a 7pm Pacific start.
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