The Nuggets delivered a tough loss to the Trail Blazers in Denver on Friday night. Portland’s supporting cast found its stride as five players outside of Damian Lillard reached double-digit point totals. Despite strong contributions from their reserves, the Blazers were pummeled by the Nuggets’ overwhelming depth and play in the paint. Both Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap looked unstoppable at times, which spelled doom for the visiting team. Outside of solid performances from their big men, reserve wing Torrey Craig was a force on both ends of the court. It was obvious that the Blazers were missing players in this one, but they still managed to stay close with the Nuggets.
Share the Wealth
Portland’s offense started with a clear plan to move the ball around. Each possession involved multiple players touching the ball before a shot was attempted. The Nuggets’ defense was focused on taking Lillard out of the action. In response, the Blazers’ tertiary facilitators did a superb job of creating favorable opportunities. Even when the play didn’t go according to plan, Enes Kanter found a way to score inside.
Along with Kanter, Rodney Hood hit his stride from the outset of this contest. The former Cavaliers forward converted catch-and-shoot looks and produced points off the dribble. Lillard’s quiet first quarter from the perimeter should have allowed the Nuggets’ defense to collapse inside, but timely three-pointers from Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu kept the interior open in the first quarter.
With Lillard held in check, the Blazers managed to claim a 29-22 lead after the opening frame.
Bench & Bigs
It’s ok if you aren’t familiar with names like: Torrey Craig, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley. This unheralded cast of reserves is one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA and they are a crucial ingredient to the Nuggets’ success this season. Craig was a menace on both ends of the court and he deserves the lion’s share of credit for Lillard’s 14-point outing. The 28-year-old forward used his size to his advantage and fought through screens with ease to stick with Dame on the perimeter. Outside of his defense, Craig connected on six of his nine shots from the field—one of which was a game-sealing shot from beyond the arc.
Morris and Beasley recorded modest point totals, but both players supplied a boost of energy for Denver each time they were summoned off the bench.
Along with help from their reserves, the Nuggets rode Millsap’s scorching-hot shooting to perfection. The Blazers tried everything and everyone while trying to slow down Millsap. The former Hawks big fella dismantled each opponent he faced and connected on his first nine shots from the field. Every time Denver needed a bucket in the second and third quarter, they looked to Millsap.
The Blazers entered the fourth quarter with a 10-5 advantage in offensive rebounding. The final period brought a different outcome. Perhaps it was Portland’s lack of depth or the altitude, but Denver’s post players routinely positioned themselves for offensive rebounds with little resistance. The result: seven offensive rebounds for the Nuggets in the fourth quarter.
The Blazers’ comeback efforts routinely had the wind taken out of them due to the Nuggets’ ability to extend possessions. Of Denver’s seven late-game offensive rebounds, Jokic corralled three of them.
Rough Night for a Star
Lillard faced defensive pressure that has become familiar to him in recent years. The Nuggets sent extra help and length towards him throughout the game—effectively preventing the Oakland native from finding his rhythm. Lillard went 3-14 from the field and missed all six of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Aminu recorded 12 points and 14 rebounds in 31 minutes of action. It was a solid double-double for the veteran forward, but he was a bit out of control on offense in crunch time.
Kanter’s lack of defense isn’t a secret, but the Turkish big man left it all on the court in this pivotal contest. His uptick in effort is a pleasant surprise as the Blazers head to the postseason. Kanter finished 24 points and seven rebounds (five offensive).
Hood registered 17 points and did an excellent job invading the Nuggets’ passing lanes. On top of his scoring, he captured three steals.
The Blazers and Nuggets will complete their two-game series in Portland on Sunday.