The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Denver Nuggets looking to turn around an abysmal five-game home losing streak tonight. They did it without the services of all-star guard Damian Lillard, suffering from a hamstring injury. Also not showing up for Portland were rebounding, interior defense, three-point shooting, and any sense of pride. The Nuggets housed the Blazers, the listless effort eliciting choruses of boos from the Moda Center crowd as the second half wound onward. The Blazers earned the catcalls, along with their sixth straight home loss, falling to Denver 102-85.
Jusuf Nurkic started the game hot once again, scoring twice inside on a nifty pair of screen plays. It looked as if the Lillard-less Blazers would try to gain an advantage by dominating the paint. That’s when the Nuggets said, “Hey, good idea!” They proceeded to blister the Blazers inside. Any Denver misses in the lane seemed accidental, as Portland’s starters watched the Nuggets’ lead creep upward. The Blazers gained a little daylight when Denver’s first unit went to the bench. The Nuggets reserves drifted farther outside and Portland’s bench players could match their production there. Denver ended up ahead 28-22 after one.
The second period was a mirror image of the first. The quarter started with the Blazers bench holding their own, even making up the deficit. But just when the scoreboard got snug, Nikola Jokic and company re-asserted themselves inside and pushed the lead back to 10. Plus Denver hit long shots. Scrambling defense and couple run-outs kept the period from becoming an abject disaster for Portland, but it wasn’t pretty. The Nuggets led 52-41 at the half.
Denver destroyed Portland in the early part of the third, alternating easy shots inside with open threes. They went on a 12-2 run, extending their lead to 17 points. Then they relaxed a little and the Blazers started chipping away. CJ McCollum got inside; Zach Collins and Evan Turner hit threes of their own. Denver got sloppy with turnovers too. Even with all that, the Blazers could only shave off 3 from the deficit and finished the quarter down 80-66. Unless a miracle was forthcoming in the fourth, this wasn’t going to be their night.
All you need to know about the beginning of the fourth quarter is that at one point, Shabazz Napier was covered tight at the top of the key and I scanned the court to see where the smart play was. Scattered around the court were Pat Connaughton, Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Collins. At that point both I and the Nuggets defense realized that the only play lay with Napier himself. It’d be hard to imagine an NBA lineup with less scoring potential unless you subbed in players even deeper down Portland’s bench. At least that unit was active on defense, but they bequeathed the returning starters no momentum.
As is typical when a team is down 15+ in the fourth, every basket the Blazers made down the stretch seemed tiny, while every Nuggets basket weighed a ton. As it turned out, Denver out-rebounded, out-hustled, and ultimately outscored the Blazers in the fourth, despite giving up lackadaisical looks inside. And that’s how Portland lost at home by 17 to a division and conference rival.
Did we mention that Damian Lillard did not play? That’s Item #1 this evening and should not be forgotten. Jake Layman, Lillard’s starting-lineup replacement, is not quite the threat. Shabazz Napier couldn’t draw defensive attention away from his teammates the way Lillard does. Lillard’s absence made the game harder for every single Portland player, perhaps outside of Jusuf Nurkic.
Still, the Blazers got beat in all four quarters...a rarity, and somewhat humiliating. They got destroyed on the glass, shot 27% from the arc and 56% from the foul line, and were obliterated in the paint, allowing Denver 64 points inside. Paint scoring built Denver’s advantage initially and they went back to it freely every time they were threatened.
Portland’s list of players NOT able to come through would fill The Twelve Days of Christmas. CJ McCollum scored just 15 points on 7-18 shooting, shooting 1-5 from the arc. Nurkic scored 10 on 4-10 from the field with ONE rebound and 4 turnovers. Meanwhile Nikola Jokic scored 27 while shooting 12-21. Al-Farouq Aminu went 1-8 from the arc.
Portland’s starting lineup scored a TOTAL of 35 points tonight. That’s a decent night for Lillard alone. It was truly nightmarish.
Blazers fans might take solace in Zach Collins going 4-6 from the field (before he fouled out in 18 minutes) or Pat Connaughton shooting 5-6 for 12 points, but somebody was going to score and they’re the guys the Nuggets cared about least.
If you’re a masochist, you can check the boxscore. Other than revealing that Moe Harkless finally found the floor again, nothing there will change or enhance the basic story.
This game will be memorable, and not in a good way. Lillard or no Lillard, it’s the kind of outing that puts coaches on the hot seat. Rumblings will start intensifying from this point onward, particularly if the Blazers also lose tomorrow night in Los Angeles against the Lakers. But this game was not lost because of poor coaching in the micro-sense. Terry Stotts’ ability to get the most out of nearly every player is nowhere in evidence this season, but night after night he’s going up against solid walls with gloves made of Saran Wrap. If anything, this kind of game exposes how limited, and in some ways un-talented, Portland’s supporting cast is, was, and will remain. The young guys will continue to develop; Lillard and McCollum will continue to shine. But if performances like this continue and a reckoning comes, it better not come for the coach alone. That’d be the easy road out, the delaying excuse, but it would come nowhere near addressing the root of the problem.
The Blazers face the Lakers tomorrow at 6:30 PM, Pacific. Maybe Santa will leave a victory in their stocking heading into Christmas.
WANT TO FEEL BETTER? You can help out kids who would LOVE to see the Blazers, even in a game like we just witnessed. That puts things in perspective. Here’s how to help:
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