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Nurkic Rebounds, Jokic Falters as Blazers Crush Nuggets

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The battle of star centers was one-sided tonight.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

When the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets face off, the battle between Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and his former understudy Jusuf Nurkic takes center stage. The matchup took on special significance tonight, as Nurkic was coming off of a rough weekend following a fourth-quarter benching in Portland’s last game against the Brooklyn Nets. As it turned out, the contest was no contest at all. The Blazers stifled Jokic, holding him to just two made field goals. Meanwhile Portland’s Big 3 of Nurkic, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum went crazy in the second half, breaking open a close game into a convincing 99-82 victory.

Game Flow

Caleb Swanigan got the start tonight in place of Noah Vonleh and was aggressive on both ends of the court. The two teams went back and forth throughout the opening quarter, which ended with Portland leading 25-21. The Blazers displayed active hands on defense, recording six steals and converting two of them into rare fast break buckets. Jusuf Nurkic was a focal point of the offense early, scoring eight points while Nikola Jokic was held scoreless for the frame.

The second period started with Portland’s second unit getting inside repeatedly while holding the Nuggets to perimeter shots. The law of averages dictated that the Blazers would prosper in that scheme, but they rocketed skyward when Santa Claus showed up in the form of Evan Turner, who added another 30% to Portland’s shooting percentage. The Blazers shot 9-12 in the first 8:00 of the second off of Denver’s poor screen defense and lethargic close-outs. After building a 14-point lead, Portland gave most of it back through bad screen defense and negligent close-outs of their own, plus a few horrible transition plays. The Blazers led by only 5, 54-49, at the half. 58% shooting in the period had added exactly one point to their lead.

Holding such a narrow lead despite every advantage going their way, the Blazers were primed for yet another second-half letdown. But Damian Lillard said, “Not tonight.” After he and McCollum hit threes in the opening minutes of the third, Lillard rattled off a series of nigh-unguardable drives. One resulted in a layup, others in devastating dishes to Blazers only too happy to arc shots over a collapsed defense. Within three minutes the Blazers were up double-digits. By the end of the third period they were closing in on a 20-point lead. The fourth quarter turned into swampy slog of missed shots, but that ended up favoring the team with the huge lead. Portland exited the evening with a welcome 17-point win.

Analysis

A few things stood out about tonight’s contest.

  1. Nikola Jokic scored only 6 points on 2-9 shooting. The Blazers seldom let him catch comfortably, never leaving him alone after he did receive the ball. Jusuf Nurkic scored 17 on 7-15 shooting, giving Portland a critical advantage at the opponent’s best position.
  2. This was one of the rare nights when the Blazers lost the offensive rebounding battle by a significant margin: 8-12.
  3. Portland shot only 33% from the arc and committed 21 turnovers, yet they still won handily.
  4. A big part of the explanation for that: Portland scored 42 points in the paint to 32 for Denver. The Blazers never let the Nuggets free inside. This accounted for much of Portland’s 52% to 36% field goal shooting advantage. It’s hard for any team to win (or even stay close) giving up that kind of shooting deficit.
  5. Portland’s bench outscored Denver’s 42-14.

Other than that, this felt like a fairly routine, if slow and sloppy, win. The “slow” part might have been part of the design; Denver maintained an advantage in fast break points and would have liked to have pushed it more. The “sloppy” part didn’t matter much in the end.

The take-away point is that slow and sloppy games in which the Blazers fail to press an advantage in the first half have inevitably ended up close, going into the loss column half the time. The Blazers almost needed a routine, imperfect win to set the world, and their heads, right again. This performance, with all its flaws, was a far better sign than a “Dame Time” buzzer-beater would have been. Portland should have led by 12 at the half. They managed that and more by the end; it just came a little bit late. Well done.

Individual Notes

Jusuf Nurkic played in the fourth quarter, did a reasonably good job in halfcourt defense all night, and (as mentioned above) outplayed Nikola Jokic handily. That was a huge boon for the Blazers. Nurkic’s pick and roll game was strong tonight. Even 7 turnovers and lackadaisical transition defense—both of which were evident—couldn’t mar the evening.

Despite a humble 4-14 night from the field, 2-8 from the arc, Damian Lillard pushed the Blazers ahead for keeps in that third period. The name on the jersey alone was enough to scare Denver into jittery defense and overplaying. Lillard’s teammates were beneficiaries. Credit them for hitting open shots; credit him for creating them.

CJ McCollum blistered the nets with 7-11 shooting, 3-5 from distance. He hit a pair of triples and a pair of layups in that fateful third period, finishing the night with 17 points, tied with Nurkic for team high.

Evan Turner had a beautiful second quarter, playing H-O-R-S-E with the Nuggets and sticking letters all over them. Like McCollum, he shot 7-11 for the evening, adding 5 assists in what was quietly one of his best games as a Blazer ever.

Portland’s interior defense would not have stayed solid without the help of rotating forwards. To a man, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Maurice Harkless, and newly-starting Caleb Swanigan moved their feet and kept the home territory defended. Vonleh added 10 rebounds in 26 minutes, Davis 7 in 15...huge factors in keeping Denver bottled up. Swanigan did well enough in the starting role, eating space, garnering a couple of blocks, but picking up 6 personal fouls in 20 minutes.

Shabazz Napier was too quick for the Nuggets tonight. He drew 7 foul shots, more than a third of Portland’s total (18).

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Check out Blazer’s Edge writer Peter Sampson on 102.9 The Game in Portland all week long during the 3:00 PM Drive slot.

The Blazers welcome the Orlando Magic at 7:00 PM, Pacific on Wednesday night.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com