The Portland Trail Blazers avoided a season series sweep to the Denver Nuggets tonight with a gritty effort to maintain hopes of home court advantage in the playoffs. Al-Farouq Aminu, the team’s unsung hero, assembled perhaps his best performance of the season to help Portland recover and retain a marginal lead though the final minutes of the 115-108 victory. Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum returned to the court after a three-week injury absence.
Clutch Aminu Does it Again
Aminu is the defensive stalwart of the Blazers; his impact generally goes unnoticed as defensive plays rarely appear on the stat sheet. In addition to playing his usual reliable defense, Aminu contributed on offense to save the game. And no, that’s not an overstatement.
Chief finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, his first career 20-10 game. He shot 8-13 from the field, 6-7 from the charity stripe and drained one three-pointer. The scoring came in a variety of ways: dunks off the dribble, reverse layups, put backs and threes. He controlled passes and dribbles much better than normal and allowed the offense to come to him. Instead of forcing bad shots on broken plays, Aminu thrived on his teammates movement to create lanes and easy opportunities around the rim.
In the absence of Jusuf Nurkic, Aminu also crashed the glass on the offensive and defensive end. Denver frequently ran pick and rolls which baited Enes Kanter out of the paint to help defend, but Aminu collapsed on shot attempts and collected rebounds over taller opponents.
CJ McCollum and Seth Curry Look Healthy
After missing the last 10 games, McCollum returned to play limited minutes in preparation for the playoffs. Right off the bat, the guard displayed his usual speed, sharp cuts and offensive creativity. He recorded all nine of his points in the first quarter, scoring in a multitude of isolation plays.
McCollum led the team in assists with six (tied with Evan Turner), an unusual occurrence for the shooting guard. Despite hunting his shot early on, McCollum made smart decisions to find the open man when the defense collapsed. He even had two flashy assists: a no-look dime to Rodney Hood for three and a smooth bounce pass to Enes Kanter in transition for an easy layup.
Seth Curry missed Friday’s matchup versus Denver but returned to score 11 points on 5-9 shooting tonight. Like McCollum, Curry showed no lingering signs of his leg injury as he endlessly sprinted around screens for catch-and-shoot threes and side-stepped Juan Hernangomez for a silky midrange jumper. Curry also defended Isaiah Thomas well, holding him to 10 points on 14 shot attempts.
Evan Turner Does His Job
Although Evan Turner didn’t record another triple-double, he made his presence felt in 21 minutes of play. With enough offensive options surrounding him, he only attempted four shots and instead focused on distributing the ball. Turner threw a patented alley-oop to Jake Layman on a fast break, found Damian Lillard for two catch-and-shoot threes at the top of the key, and broke Denver’s late-game press to provide Aminu with a layup that sealed the victory.
On the other end, Turner defended players from Thomas up to Hernangomez, demonstrating his ability to guard multiple positions. He blocked Malik Beasley’s layup attempt with one minute left in the game to keep the lead at two possessions as well. He relieves pressure from Lillard and McCollum on both ends of the court, a major benefit when playoffs start and defense’s focus on the guards when they have the ball.
As already mentioned, Aminu crashed the offensive glass several times to give the Blazers much-needed baskets. The usual suspects, Kanter and Zach Collins, also hustled for offensive rebounds and supplied Portland with numerous second chance opportunities. The trio of big men took advantage of the absence of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap and collected 12 combined offensive boards, as many as the entire Nuggets team.
Nurkic averaged a career-high 3.4 offensive rebounds per game this season, a key factor in Portland ranking fourth in the league for second chance points. When playoff opponents inevitably force Lillard and McCollum into the occasional bad shot, Aminu, Kanter and Collins’ offensive rebounding motor will keep the offense producing.
The Portland Trail Blazers face Los Angeles Lakers on the road Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. PT. With the Utah Jazz’s loss tonight, the magic number for home court advantage is down to one.