The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets both had plenty to play for when the teams met on Monday night, with seeding in the 2018 NBA Playoffs on the line. Denver wanted to stay in the hunt, earning a tie with the 8th-seed Minnesota Timberwolves. Portland was seeking to solidify possession of 3rd place, avoiding messy tiebreakers with a number of teams below them and earning homecourt advantage in the first round. Jusuf Nurkic turned in one of his best performances of the year against his former team, but it wasn’t enough to propel the Blazers across the goal line. Though they had control of the game at various points. Portland couldn’t keep it in their grasp. Bad decision making and even worse shooting sent them to a head-scratching 82-88 defeat, keeping the playoff picture murky and confidence shaky.
Damian Lillard opened this game with a three-pointer, usually a positive sign. In this case it heralded the start of a 2-10 evening from deep and provided the prelude for a 12-0 Denver run...not an encouraging development. With his team falling apart, Jusuf Nurkic started eyeing the ball like he was at the movie theater concession stand and it was a box of Bacon-Wrapped Whoppers. Nurkic’s huge rebounding, monstrous body-throwing, and thorough domination of former teammate Nikola Jokic paved the way for a big Portland comeback. Lillard scored, CJ McCollum had a few brief moments in an otherwise-awful night, and the Blazers found themselves ahead 49-42 at halftime.
...Then Getting Bounced
Portland started the second half like they were presenting a prime episode of “The Real Trail Blazers”. Rebounding remained impeccable, Nurkic stayed strong, McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu uncorked deep shots. They pushed the lead to double digits, where it stayed through the 7:30 mark. With Portland up 61-51, the second unit came in and started rolling “Real Trail Blazers 2”. Rebounding went south, paint defense disappeared, and brain-dead isolation sets made the offense stink like the bottom end of a Camas dumpster. There’s no pretty way to say it; the Blazers just disintegrated. The Nuggets couldn’t hit an open three to save their lives, which was the only thing that kept Portland afloat. The Blazers led 69-66 after three.
The story got even worse in the fourth. McCollum continued his game-long trend of being “that guy” in the offense, hoisting shots that only a mother could love. Meanwhile Lillard went cold and Nurkic barely touched the ball (and didn’t do that much when he did). Portland mustered only 13 points in the period. Denver owned the boards and all 50-50 balls went their way. They only scored 22, mostly because their distance shooting remained spotty. But they only needed 22 to blow past the Blazers convincingly. Every bit of energy, momentum, and grit belonged to the home team. The visitors ended up slinking off the floor, seemingly aware that whatever they had played in that second half, it wasn’t really basketball.
What Was That?
We could talk about 33% shooting, 7-33 from the arc, a 17-7 fast break deficit, and 10 assists against 17 turnovers, but this game boiled down to one simple fact: Portland’s game plan was about as relevant as a Toys ‘R Us coupon. Nurkic aside, the Blazers played horribly for most of the evening. Denver concentrated on stopping Lillard, with a secondary eye towards McCollum, leaving everybody else in single coverage inside and sometimes uncovered outside. The Blazers never responded with anything more than one-on-everybody moves and bricks. Even Nurkic’s brilliance was tainted by his relatively slow-developing offense. Denver was more than willing to trade two points for time elapsed and no open shots for Dame and CJ. Portland made them pay for leaving Nurk single-covered, but gave it all back with completely bolloxed offense everywhere else.
Even if we chalk up the offensive woes to inattention and cold shooting, Portland’s defensive effort slipped into mediocrity in the second half and their rebounding went from world-class to non-existent in the blink of an eye. Denver wanted to take the game from the Blazers and they just let it happen. That is absolutely astonishing for a team that could control its own destiny with a simple victory...a team tuning up for the playoffs, a venue in which controlling your own destiny is literally the only thing that keeps you on the court.
No matter what the outcome of Wednesday’s game against the Utah Jazz, nights like this one continue to be a problem for the Blazers. You never want to risk everything on one outing if you can avoid it. The Blazers could have avoided it, but they didn’t. If they can’t keep themselves from falling apart against a bubble team ripe for the taking while holding a double-digit lead, what are they going to do when the playoffs get really tough?
Credit Nurkic for a huge 20-point, 19-rebound outing. Then raise an eyebrow for 9 other guys who put together an effort as appealing as Creamed Lima Beans on Toast. This was Game 81, not Game 12. These nights are supposed to resolve questions, not raise more...and particularly not the one most repeated on Twitter during that awful second half: “What the @^%&*#????”
Denver Stiffs still has playoff hopes!
Portland will play the Jazz on Wednesday night at 7:30 PM, the final game of their regular season.
—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / email@example.com