The Portland Trail Blazers (13-15) hit another low point in their frustrating 2016-17 season against the Denver Nuggets (10-16) tonight at the Pepsi Center. Lackluster Portland defense and an uncharacteristic nine first-half 3-pointers for the Nuggets resulted in a 132-120 loss for the Blazers.
After strong performances against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this week, the Blazers came into Denver looking to build on their momentum and reach a .500 record. Instead, they trailed from tip-off to the final buzzer and allowed the Nuggets to score a season high 132 points.
Danilo Gallinari led 8(!) Nuggets in double figures with 27 total points, 20 of which came in the first half. Gary Harris returned to the Nuggets’ starting lineup and put up 18 points, 4 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Mason Plumlee combined to score 82 of Portland’s 120 points, but got little help from the rest of the roster. Lillard also had 10 assists, notching his fifth double-double of the season.
The Nuggets started the game scorching hot from beyond the 3-point line, going 5-for-6 on triples in the first quarter. They rode the hot shooting to 23 points in the first six minutes of the quarter, and used an 11-0 run to build a 29-15 led at the 4:25 mark (no pizza tonight). The Blazers did not panic and stayed even with the Nuggets on the boards (10-10) and dominated in the paint (18-12) despite struggling on their own 3-point attempts (1-for-8). The Nuggets led 38-28 after one quarter, but the general sentiment was that things could have been worse for the Blazers.
Unfortunately things did get worse in the second quarter. Way worse. The Blazers opened the quarter by missing nine of their first 12 shots and turning the ball over seven times. The Nuggets took advantage when Portland’s defense stretched to contain their 70+ percent shooting and began to score in the paint. When Nikola Jokic hit a triple with 5:15 to go the lead had expanded to 23 (60-37). Lillard triggered a mini-run to cut the margin to 74-56 at the half.
Any hope of making a comeback died quickly when the Blazers opted to put forth an **ahem** insufficient effort on defense to open the third quarter.
Backdoor alley-oop dunk with a silly foul? Check.
Offensive rebound and uncontested pass into the paint? Check.
Failed assignment and/or rotation leading to an easy lay-up AND silly foul? Check.
Blown pick-and-roll coverage? Check.
The fourth quarter was more of the same: the Blazers managed to make several mini-runs to pull within 11, but never threatened to control Nuggets’ scoring attack. The end result: a 132-120 loss.
The Nuggets started out hot enough to melt the Portland snow. However, many of their first quarter field goals were challenged - four of their five 3-pointers and several of their other jump shots were hit with a hand in the face. For once, the refrain of “they’re just hitting shots!” was proving true. The Blazers, somewhat impressively, acquitted themselves well by staying within 10 points - it looked like they had weathered the storm and could make a run in the second quarter.
But instead of making a run, the Blazers surrendered 94 points over the next three quarters. After the promising play of the last two games, all of the not-so-old bad habits re-emerged. Kenneth Faried beasted the Blazers on the glass, Wilson Chandler cut to the bucket with impunity, and Nikola Jokic threw no-look passers into the lane as the Blazers turned their backs to cutting Nuggets.
We’ve seen these patterns before, but they were especially frustrating tonight for two reasons:
- The Blazers have survived the first third of the season by feasting on bad teams, even as good teams walloped them back. Portland was 9-3 against teams under .500 and 4-11 against teams above .500 heading into tonight’s game. Beating up on bad teams had essentially become a safety net for the Blazers - it’s going to be a long and frustrating season if they’re going to start losing to the Denver Nuggets of the NBA. As it stands, the Blazers are are in very serious danger of becoming one of the “bad teams” themselves - they are currently as close to no. 13 in the Western Conference standings as they are to no. 6. They can only afford so many losses to teams in the bottom half of the standings going forward.
- The Blazers made chemistry and cohesion major selling points during the off-season. Lillard’s leadership and the roster continuity were supposed to compensate for a lack of needle-moving acquisitions. Instead, the Blazers have spent most of the season seemingly lacking consistent energy and motivation - two elements that strong chemistry should provide in abundance. With the season one-third over, it’s becoming more and more difficult to write off the nearly nightly ups and downs as aberrations. Of course, there are still 54 games left to find that consistency, but so far there have been far too many games where this team has looked more like the 2015-16 Rockets than the 2015-16 Blazers.
With all that said, it is STILL possible that this loss to the Nuggets will be forgotten in a week. Individually, nearly every player on the Portland roster has shown flashes of brilliance this season. Maurice Harkless has been phenomenal all year, Evan Turner is playing some of the best basketball of his career after a slow start, and Plumlee has reached new personal heights as a defender over the last three games.
This team does have talent, but they have struggled to all find it on the same night, and to use it collectively as team defenders. That lack of cohesion and communication has made the low points appear far worse than they actually are. To put it another way - presumably this team didn’t transform from a “slightly below average” defensive team to the “worst of all time.” The talent of individual players suggests improvements can still be made, but time is running short. The Blazers will get another chance to prove themselves on Saturday night in Oakland against the Warriors.
Denver Stiffs is celebrating a healthy starting lineup.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado