Had you told the Portland Trail Blazers at the beginning of the season that on March 28th they’d be dueling the Denver Nuggets for the right to claim the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs bracket, they likely would have greeted the proclamation with skepticism and disappointment. A wholly different, but no less justified, skepticism might have emerged after making the same declaration at the All-Star Break when it appeared Portland’s season was going down the drain with nary a plunger in sight. But plungers arrived at the Moda Center aplenty tonight as the Blazers vanquished the Nuggets. Jusuf Nurkić plunged down the lane repeatedly; CJ McCollum’s deadeye shooting plunged Denver’s hopes into darkness; and the Trail Blazers plunged onward towards their stated goal of making the post-season, shoving the Nuggets a full game behind them in the Race for 8th courtesy of a 122-113 victory. As cheers and streamers rained down upon the court, whatever led Portland to this point faded into the background. One thing mattered: in their biggest game of the season the Blazers finally came up big. For tonight, it was enough.
The Blazers and Nuggets spent the first half of this game waging such a vicious battle for the paint that executives for Sherwin Williams and Glidden shook their heads in awe and disgust. Offensive prowess was on full display; a good time was had by all.
Nurkić spent the first two quarters showing the Nuggets why trading him to a division rival was a bad idea. Then he showed them why starting anybody in front of him ever for any reason was a bad idea. Then he showed them why speaking his name in anything other than a hushed prayer that he not descend in a wrathful Zeus-ian thunderbolt blasting the feathers off of your vulnerable fuzzy-duckling hide IS A BAD IDEA. Even when the Nuggets stopped Nurkić from catching the ball they couldn’t prevent him from rebounding it. He terrorized them in the key and up high with picks until they didn’t know which way to turn.
CJ McCollum dropping jumpers like Saltbae made matters worse for Denver. The Nuggets showed no ability to defend the screen and roll, McCollum’s one-on-one moves, or anything in between.
The opening quarters would have produced a 30-point lead for the Blazers had they not had the exact same problem in reverse on the other end. The Nuggets couldn’t hit an outside shot to save their lives, but why should they even try when everybody could take turns riding the Layup Carousel? Nikola Jokić scoring in the lane is expected. Wilson Chandler and Will Barton making your interior defense look silly is harder to take. Denver’s first-half shot chart was just a massive ink stain in the restricted area. As a result, instead of a romp the Blazers held a spare 66-64 lead at the half. Whomever defended first—not even best, just first—was bound to win this game.
Fortunately that team turned out to be the Blazers. The Nuggets still hit a slew of shots in the lane in the second half but the Blazers were able to force them out on the perimeter more. Portland created turnovers and rebounded like fiends too.
Meanwhile Denver continued to defend McCollum like Black Riders in The Shire “Has anyone seen a hobbit? Wait, there’s one! He has a ring but is it the right one? I guess we should check. Hmmmm...hold up! Did you hear a noise in the bushes? Squirrel!!! After it! Tally ho!!!” With Denver’s defense 42 steps behind McCollum took the ball to Rivendell, Moria, Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, Mazatlán, Antarctica, the Sea of Tranquility, Westeros, Narnia, District 13, straight down the produce aisle of Whole Foods, into your mama’s house, past the Statue of Liberty, around the Kremlin, and back home again, scoring every single step of the way. Against a discombobulated defense, Nurkić often found himself left unattended. Again, BAD...IDEA!
CJ stabbed and Nurk sledgehammered the Nuggets the whole rest of the evening. Good defense earned Portland an 8-point edge in the third. Even when they scored more the Nuggets never played enough “D” to get above even in the fourth. The evening ended as it should have...with Portland trotting through a victory lap and Nurkić with a “told you so” smile on his face.
The two teams combined to shoot approximately a million-billion percent in the first half. The turning point came when Portland held Denver below 35% in the third period while losing none of their own offensive potency. Combined with absolutely stellar rebounding, that period sealed the game. It’s not often one can say the Blazers won a game with defense, especially when they allowed the opponent 113 points. Still this was one of the few games this year in which you can say their defensive effort made a positive difference. Without the hustle and some grand stops, this game goes into overtime at 122-all and who knows what happens from there?
The pick and roll was a huge story on both ends tonight. Denver approached Portland’s high screens like kindergarteners attacking the square root of 77. When the Blazers ran Damian Lillard off of Nurk they threw Denver into a tizzy. When McCollum came off the screen the play was over. Meanwhile the Blazers kept reasonable-sized defenders in front of Jokić no matter what the play, making him shoot from the perimeter if at all. They lived with Jameer Nelson getting free (and scoring 23) to keep Denver’s big man under control and defenders in the lane. Whether the Nuggets screened or went one-on-one, Portland stuck to that principle. It worked. (Keep in mind the definition of “worked” in this case is, “Denver didn’t score 122”.)
The Blazers missed an uncharacteristic amount of three-pointers and free throws in this game. (8-27, 30% and 24-33, 73% respectively.) The Nuggets didn’t want to get burned from the arc and they sent big wing defenders to make sure it didn’t happen. They succeeded, but the Blazers scored everywhere else, including and especially off the offensive glass.
Add this all up, and this can be categorized as a quality win, not just because of the playoff circumstances but because the Blazers won it using attributes they’ve often lacked: defense, willpower, and the ability to succeed with a Plan B when Plan A was taken away. Like the cavalry in the old Westerns, you might wish these characteristics had shown up a little sooner, but there’s no denying the dramatic timing or the positive effect.
Jusuf Nurkić scored a career high 33 points on 12-15 shooting with 6 offensive rebounds, 16 total boards, and 3 blocks. He looked like the cat who ate the canary as the clock wound toward a win and the Moda Center crowd started chanting his name. The guy who used to start in front of him in Denver had 17 points on 7-14 shooting with 8 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 blocks. That was a great night, but it wasn’t a Nurk Night.
What CJ McCollum did to the Nuggets tonight cannot be described on a family site. Half the reason Nurkić got free was CJ splashing mid-range shots like he was dunking Oreos in milk. He chewed his way through 15-24 shooting, finishing the game with 39 points and 5 rebounds. To put it in perspective, guards Jameer Nelson and Gary Harris had MONSTER nights for the Nuggets, scoring 23 and 19 respectively on 16-25 shooting combined. Together they hit only one more shot and scored but three more points than McCollum did.
Damian Lillard was no slouch, shooting 7-19 from the field for 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists. He was a bazooka in the midst of a nuclear showing by his teammates.
Moe Harkless struggled with foul trouble and played only 14 minutes. Noah Vonleh had a monster dunk, 3 offensive rebounds, and 2 steals in 29 minutes. It was enough.
Al-Farouq Aminu was the star off the bench for the Blazers. Denver’s defense didn’t do a great job of sticking by Nurkić, but they weren’t even in the same area code as Aminu. Some nights that works; tonight Aminu made them pay to the tune of 15 points on 4-7 shooting. The preoccupied Nuggets also left Aminu free to make rebounding runs, resulting in 4 offensive boards and 9 overall.
Everyone else off Portland’s bench was pretty miserable. Meyers Leonard blew defensive assignments while Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner struggled all night just to make a shot. But Terry Stotts shuffled them in and out enough that the damage was spread.
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Denver Stiffs will be nervous about the playoffs melting away. They also might be upset about you know who doing you know what to them tonight.
The Blazers now lead Denver for the 8th seed by a single game with 8 remaining on the schedule for each. Portland plays 6 of 8 at home and the difficulty is moderate. Denver plays 6 of their 8 on the road and the difficulty is severe.
Portland’s next contest comes Thursday night versus the Houston Rockets.
—Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard