Backed by 60 points, 15 rebounds, and 10 assists from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Portland Trail Blazers pulled out an overtime win in Denver Saturday night, 115-113. Lillard provided the scoring early with McCollum stepping in late to help set the table for another edition of #LillardTime. Portland’s guard heroics bracketed one of the most disjointed evenings in recent memory, a game broken up into several parts, both literally and figuratively.
The first quarter looked like typical recent-vintage Trail Blazers. The ball moved on the offensive end and everyone got looks. Mason Plumlee started off Portland’s scoring, followed by contributions from all of the starters: a Lillard layup, a three from Moe Harkless, another from Al-Farouq Aminu, a floater from McCollum. The stagnant, sloppy, non-committal play so prevalent against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night was gone. In its place came familiar motion offense and beautiful basketball.
The second quarter saw another familiar sight: Lillard going supernova. He dropped 13 points and 2 assists in the period, including these:
Lillard finished the half with 21 points (9-for-14), 5 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 steals. As the kids would say, he was “on one.” Meanwhile Evan Turner managed to find a bit of his game working some post ups and isolations. He finished the half with 6 points on 3-for-4 shooting. He wasn’t spectacular, but he contributed without hurting the overall effort. Baby steps.
Halftime took longer than usual as the Nuggets retired Dikembe Mutombo’s No. 55, and then with less than ten minutes in the fourth quarter a power surge caused a 30-minute delay until lighting, cameras, et al could be restored.
To understand the third quarter, take everything that happened in the first half, roll it into a ball, and throw it out the car window at 110 miles per hour. Then imagine it hitting the ground, rolling into a storm drain, being picked up by a coyote and torn to shreds as it’s fed to hungry pups. In 12 minutes of misery the Nuggets outscored the Blazers 22-8 in the paint, 34-19 overall. Portland trailed by 7, 88-81, after three.
The fourth quarter started off well enough, as the Blazers and Nuggets traded baskets. Then as Portland seemed to gather momentum, someone turned off the lights. Literally. Power in the Pepsi Center surged and the game was postponed for just shy of a half hour. Any hope of the Blazers coming out and re-establishing dominance were quickly snuffed out as the Nuggets ran off a 5-0 run to wrest control of the contest.
The status quo held for the better part of five minutes before the Blazers made a small push to close the gap. A Lillard lay-up here, a McCollum midrange jumper there...bit by bit Portland nibbled their way back into contention. Still, things looked precarious until the basketball gods ordained a ridiculous series of events that no one saw coming.
A Kenneth Faried turnover led to a Lillard three-pointer with 47 seconds left in regulation to close the Blazers within 104-99. Then Emmanual Muiday fouled McCollum on a layup for an and-one, making the score 104-102. Wilson Chandler missed a pair of free throws with 4 seconds remaining, allowing the Blazers to set up a out of bounds lob from Mason Plumlee to Lillard with less than three seconds remaining. This left the score tied at 104 with overtime ahead.
The extra period went back and forth early on as McCollum and Nikola Jokic traded virtual jabs and crosses. Jokic landed a midrange jumper, followed by a McCollum three, which Jokic replicated on the Nuggets end, only to be met by a McCollum pull up jumper from 15 feet. After getting to the line to knock down a handful of free throws the Nuggets looked like they had the game in hand again. Not so much.
With 1:01 remaining in OT and the Blazers down 113-109, a Faried foul sent Plumlee to the line. He converted his career 60% success rate on the line into a pair of makes, leaving Portland down two. McCollum would convert with 34 seconds left, knotting the score at 113.
With the game on the line, the Nuggets ran the same set they had to close out regulation, getting Lillard switched on to the much-taller Danilo Gallinari at the elbow. Gallinari drove the paint, beating Lillard easily, but Aminu rotated over almost instantly, bodying up Gallinari and blocking his shot.
On their final play the Blazers ran enough action on the pick and roll to get Faried switched onto Lillard above the three point. This would not be pretty for Denver. Lillard executed a straight line drive, pulled up, elevated, released...and buckets. Portland led 115-113 with .3 seconds to go on the clock. The Nuggets got Gallinari one final heave but it fell short. Ball game. Blazers win.
At times this game was beautiful, looking as if James Naismith himself had orchestrated it. Other times it looked like Oscar the Grouch was directing traffic as turnovers, fouls, and sluggish play marred the screen. Overall it lacked a theme, trend, or prevailing thread that carried the night...unless you want to call the consistent inconsistency a trend.
Both teams blew defensive assignments ad nauseam tonight. As the game matured the Nuggets found whoever Lillard was guarding and begin their attack there. Even if they didn’t score off that match up directly, Portland’s over-rotation off of help defense left Denver open men and easy looks.
Behind Lillard, the Trail Blazers started hot and flowing. With positive feedback abounding, they didn’t deviate from their plan of attack. This became their downfall in the second half. As Lillard when Lillard produced less they fell behind rapidly. Adjustments from Coach Terry Stotts, McCollum finding his rhythm alongside Lillard, and the Nuggets falling apart on nearly every possession down the stretch all contributed to Portland’s victory.
Apparently Damian Lillard is taking this MVP thing seriously? Tonight he notched 37 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. On the season, Lillard is averaging 35 points, 5.3 assists, and 8 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the floor and 44 percent from three. Three games in or not, those are MVP-caliber numbers. In two out of three games, Lillard has thrown the Blazers in his backpack and carried them up Mount Victory.
CJ McCollum hasn’t started the season great, but it hasn’t been bad either. From the outside, it looks like McCollum has taken a step back in the offense to allow both Turner and Allen Crabbe to get more time on the ball, thus his numbers have fallen just a little. Tonight he got hot in the second half, finishing with 23 points, 10 rebounds (only the second time McCollum has reached double digit rebounds), and 3 assists.
Mason Plumlee continues to work off the ball and score easily on put backs and when defenses rotate to cover penetration, but he also continues to get beat on the boards. The Blazers got outrebounded 61-45 tonight with Plumlee reeling in only 2. On the season, Plumlee is averaging 3.7 boards per game, 7th on the team.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner had interesting evenings. Both had ups and downs, particularly on the offensive end. Turner had a nice run in the second quarter that saw him stick 3 out of 4 midrange jumpers off of isolations and post ups. He played off ball a bit more. Simplifying the game appeared to free him up. Aminu’s defense was wonderful tonight. When penetration came early in a possession, The Chief was there to deter all attempts. On the evening, Aminu finished with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks.
Instant Recap from Ryan Rosback
See the view from the other side at Denver Stiffs
The Blazers face the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night at 7:00 p.m. in the Moda Center.