Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
The Denver Nuggets excelled in all their favorite ways tonight but the Trail Blazers gave as much punishment as they took in a classic battle. Late fourth-quarter errors for both teams told the tale with Portland's turning out just slightly worse in a 109-111 loss.
Let's say this right at the top. This was a great, great game. The evening was full of great individual performances, heroic plays, tragic mistakes, drama. It had more twists and turns than a Formula-1 race. Plus the score was close all night. It was everything you want in an NBA contest. Anyone who viewed it got their money's worth. It's too bad the Blazers had to lose it, but dang. If things went this way every night it almost wouldn't matter what the record was.
Despite Denver being able to execute pretty much like they wanted the Blazers managed to stick with them. The Nuggets had 72 points in the paint tonight. No big surprise. They shot 52%, no big surprise against Portland either. Ty Lawson had 30 and Andre Iguodala 29. Lawson's points were a product of some nice dribble penetration and a reliable pull-up jumper against bad defense. Every shot Iguodala hit that wasn't an alley-oop or fast break (and there were plenty of those) looked like a feat of wizardry. The guy was just awesome in finding little cracks and getting the ball through them.
On the other end Damian Lillard returned the favor to Lawson with 26 points of his own, hitting 4 of 6 from the arc and 6 of 8 from the free throw line. J.J. Hickson and Wesley Matthews chipped in with their opportunity points inside and out. Nicolas Batum only got aggressive with his shot a few times but passed with aplomb. LaMarcus Aldridge came through in the middle quarters when his team was flagging and scored 22 himself. The Blazers shot 10-25 (40%) from distance to counter Denver's paint points and managed to score a respectable 42 in the lane themselves.
In the end, though, the game rose and fell on three factors: fast break points, offensive rebounds, and turnovers. Both teams excelled and faltered in all three areas during different parts of the game. Each squad's fortunes followed these trends. Astute observers (or just those who read our game preview) will note that each of these is a Denver strong point. But I'll be darned if the Blazers didn't stick with them. Denver had 22 fast break points but Portland scored 17, rebounding and running back hard. Each team had 13 offensive rebounds. Portland committed 19 turnovers but Denver had 15 themselves. Keeping close in these areas kept Portland close in the game. Denver's small advantage throughout allowed them the advantage in preserving, rather than having to overtake, in the final couple of minutes. And what a close it was.
Denver led 106-101 with 1:59 remaining when Matthews, gimpy all night, came up with one of his patented late-game threes off of a Batum pass to make the score 106-104. After a Denver miss and a Lillard turnover Matthews fouled Lawson at the other end with 1:08 remaining. Shockingly Lawson missed both free throws, opening the door wide for the Blazers. But his second attempt double-bounced on the rim, causing Hickson to mistime his rebound. Kosta Koufos got the offensive rebound, which looked like disaster for the Blazers, but all the Nuggets could do against Portland's defense was milk the clock into a poorly-executed three-pointer which missed. Aldridge scored on the other end tying the game at 106 with 33 seconds left.
After a timeout Andre Miller hit a fairly easy layup to push the Nuggets ahead 108-106 again. After Portland's timeout Aldridge established deep position in the lane and received the pass but allowed himself to get pushed out as he was catching and missed an awkward-looking shot fading away. Then Lillard fouled Lawson who made both free throws this time and Denver led by 4 with 13 seconds left, which looked like game over.
With that little time the Blazers tried their usual Batum quick three-pointer, running him out at an angle instead of down the baseline. Denver had it sniffed out and Batum ended up with a horrible one-handed leaning push from 24 feet which missed badly to end Portland's hopes. Except the wild carom came to Luke Babbitt who alertly shoveled the ball to Lillard at the three-point arc. Bingo! Portland trails 110-109 with 3 seconds left.
The Nuggets managed to get the ball to the excellent free-throw shooting veteran Andre Miller for the intentional foul shots. With ice in his veins Miller calmly stepped to the line and...sank only 1 of 2. Portland called their final timeout trailing by 2, 111-109.
Matthews held the ball ready to inbounds. They faked the sideline pass for the three once again which distracted Denver enough to leave a clear lane to Aldridge posting up in his favorite spot on the left block, only 10 feet away. Wilson Chandler, his defender, never even had a chance. Aldridge caught, wheeled, released...and missed what may have been his easiest non-dunk shot of the night. The game ended tragically for Portland. Both teams made mistakes but the Blazers were just slightly more ill-timed. Still, it was the same feeling one has after getting off of a roller coaster. You're sick to your stomach a bit but dang, was that a ride.
Again, it wasn't necessarily surprising that Denver scored 111, 72 in the paint, 22 fast break points, and shot 52%. The amazing thing is that the Blazers stayed even and could have won this game despite all that.
LaMarcus Aldridge shot 11-24 for 22 points tonight. He wasn't dominant but the Blazers needed his post presence to free up the halfcourt offense. Through much of the game they were scoring on the run or off of deep jumpers, nothing else. Eventually those deep jumpers stopped falling and it looked like Portland would sink. That's when Aldridge would calm down the team with touches and shots, helping his teammates find good jumpers instead of bad. He had only 5 rebounds in 41 minutes.
Damian Lillard's night was crammed full of extreme highs and lows. He led the team with 26 points, shot 8-14 plus the aforementioned great numbers from the arc and line. At times he just butchered the Nuggets, breaking them after Aldridge had weakened them. He showed good balance between outside shots and drives. You can't complain about any of that. He also got turnover-happy though and committed a critical one late. More significantly, every time the Nuggets faced a critical possession they ran it right through his defense.
J.J Hickson had 6 offensive rebounds, 14 total boards, shot 5-9 from the field, hit 8 of 9 free throws. He couldn't stop Denver's centers but he sure gave them a heck of a time. That free throw percentage needs to be underlined. It's becoming less of a concern as the season progresses which makes him a much safer bet offensively. In short, this was an everything you want from J.J. night...again.
Nicolas Batum had ups and downs to his night too, though they were far less pronounced than Lillard's. He opened the game just destroying the Nuggets, breaking them down off the dribble and dishing...finding open teammates...even hitting a three of his own. For two and a half minutes he was a one-man wrecking crew, assisting on Portland's first 3 buckets and downing that triple as an exclamation point. Then he went into silent mode for a while. He emerged again in the second half with some spectacular blocks and steals and dished assists throughout but never really found his own offensive rhythm again. He attempted 9 shots, hitting 4, for 10 points. But he had 9 assists, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks, and an amazing 5 steals. He also committed 4 turnovers but you're less concerned about those than Lillard's 5, both because Batum's were more honest and because those 9 assists give him a good success ration where Lillard's 4 assists doesn't.
Wesley Matthews had a fairly poor night until the game counted. His defense was slow (5 personal fouls), he missed shots (4-12 from the field, 4-11 from distance), he had but 1 rebound and 2 assists. But who else do you want shooting that mid-to-late fourth quarter three? Batum is the king of the last-second turn-around bomb. Lillard is the master of the in-your-face trifecta. But Wesley Matthews is the undisputed ruler of the "Oh, you thought we were done? Well here's a three for you!" shot.
Holy Peaches and Herb, Batman...we have a Meyers Leonard sighting off the bench. Leonard toasted his 21st birthday by toasting the Nuggets with multiple dunks. Click here to see his second one, over Andre Miller. The other ones were pretty much equally nasty. The funniest part is that Leonard doesn't know that he shouldn't flex on Miller even if Miller should have cleared the way on the dunk instead of trying to stop it. Miller's played more games in the NBA than Leonard has played minutes in the NBA. Besides, Blazers fans know that no good will come of that. You're either going to get 92 alley-oops thrown to your man your Miller will just give you a Blake Griffin concussion tap. (Tonight it was the former.) It's not like Leonard's game was pristine otherwise. 5 rebounds, 4 personal fouls, and a mix of scrappy and crappy defense in 16 minutes. But those 13 bench-leading points on a variety pack of dunks made the night worthwhile the same way seeing a dancing bear wend his way down your street would make your evening interesting. What does it mean? Who knows. But aren't you glad you saw it?
Victor Claver showed he wasn't ready for the 23 minutes he got tonight, getting burned, committing turnovers, missing shots. Some nights you win, some you lose.
Eric Maynor had 3 assists in 14 minutes but also missed 4 shots and didn't help the defense much.
Luke Babbitt managed to pack an offensive rebound and an assist into that one possession at the end of the game. Will Barton wasn't a factor in his 4 minutes.
The schedule gets easier for the very last time this year as Minnesota and Charlotte come to town Saturday and Monday. After that the nightmare of road games and tough home matchups ensues, so enjoy this weekend.
Denver Stiffs will celebrate a hard-fought game.