The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets are expected to battle for seeding in the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Even though it’s only January 22nd, tonight’s game already felt like a postseason matchup. Though the score remained close throughout, the Trail Blazers failed to put away the Nuggets in the fourth quarter. Jamal Murray’s 38-point outburst ultimately proved to be the difference. Damian Lillard scored 25 points of his own, while Portland’s defense performed well for the majority of the contest, but an untimely free throw miss from Lillard combined with an unfortunate possession-altering review helped the Nuggets capture a valuable win over a divisional opponent.
Murray Starts Hot, Lillard Answers
Jamal Murray helped the Nuggets jump out to an early 8-0 lead by deftly maneuvering around an active Blazers defense. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum suffered from a slow start, but found help from Evan Turner and Jusuf Nurkic. Turner cashed in an open three-pointer, while Nurkic battled in the paint for buckets. That aside, both squads struggled to get into a flow on offense. The quarter mercifully ended with the Nuggets clinging to a 20-to-19 advantage.
McCollum opened the second quarter piloting Portland’s bench unit. He broke out of a mini-slump, converting six straight points to give Portland a slight lead at the 8:00 mark. With Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee resting, Ed Davis and Zach Collins terrorized the Nuggets on both ends of the court. The back-up bigs did a solid job of altering shots and forcing turnovers. Lillard complemented the defensive effort by scoring 10 of Portland’s last 12 points of the half. The Blazers finished the second quarter ahead 49-45.
Denver Withstands The Pressure
The Nuggets quickly erased the deficit by starting the third quarter with an 8-0 run. Portland eventually found its footing behind a steady diet of a two-man offense featuring Nurkic and Lillard. Despite solid defense and crafty offense, the Blazers were unable to separate themselves. A last-second shot from Ed Davis broke the stalemate, giving Portland a slim 78-to-76 lead after three quarters.
The Blazers continued to attack the heart of the Nuggets defense to start the fourth quarter. Portland scored their first 12 points of the final frame from inside the arc, holding a 90-to-84 advantage with 5:57 remaining in the game. Murray saved his best for last by scoring 8 in the final 6 minutes of the game. Lillard had a chance to give Portland a 3-point lead with 41 seconds remaining, but he failed to convert the back end of an and-1 opportunity. Murray had no such issues, converting his own old fashioned three-point opportunity with 33 seconds remaining. The Nuggets led 100-99.
McCollum and Turner missed shots on the ensuing possessions, then a review on a Lillard-Plumlee tussle ended with the Nuggets being awarded the ball. Lillard fouled Will Barton, who converted two free throws. Needing three points to tie the score, Portland opted for a Nurkic dunk with just two seconds remaining. The Nuggets made good on the free throws on the next intentional foul; the Blazers never got the tying shot attempt off. Denver escaped with a thrilling 104-to-101 victory.
Defensive Display In Playoff-like Conditions
This game was tight for all four quarters, as neither team could sustain long stretches of reliable offense. Portland’s big men shined in this contest. Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins were active on the defensive end. The Blazers kept everyone not named Jamal Murray off balance for the majority of the game, forcing 11 turnovers in the first half alone. (Denver would finish the game with only 15, however.)
Despite surrendering size on the block, the Blazers only lost the rebounding battle 49-to-44. Portland outscored Denver by eight points in the paint.
After failing three times previously, the Blazers once again fell short of earning their first four-game winning streak of the season. Portland had the Nuggets on the ropes at several points in the second half, but couldn’t deliver a finishing blow.
Dame Makes His Final All-Star Case
Damian Lillard notched 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting tonght. He is now shooting just a shade under 50 percent from the field in the month of January. He also chipped in eight assists and two rebounds.
CJ McCollum didn’t fare as well as his backcourt partner in this contest. McCollum connected on just 3 of 14 shots for 12 total points. It wasn’t all bad, though, as CJ came up with two steals on the defensive end.
Jusuf Nurkic recorded a double-double in his first return to Denver after being traded to the Blazers. Along with his 19 points and 12 rebounds, Nurkic had 3 blocks and 2 steals.
Ed Davis and Zach Collins combined for 17 rebounds off the bench. They shot a solid 6-of-10 from the field.
Time For Some Home Cooking
Our friends at Denver Stiffs got to enjoy a victory and the chance to boo Nurkic on the same night.
The Blazers will return to the court on Wednesday to host the Timberwolves.
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com