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McCollum, Smart Defense Lift Blazers over Nuggets in Game 2

Portland takes one in Denver thanks to a couple of guards and energetic defense.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers stole an ugly game on the road to even their playoffs series at 1-1 against the Denver Nuggets. CJ McCollum led the team with 20 points as six players reached double-digit scoring. He compensated for his backcourt partner, Damian Lillard, who only tallied 14 points on 5/17 shooting.

Denver also struggled to make shots, shooting 34.7% from the field and 20.7% from three. Ten straight missed triples to end the first half even encouraged boos from the home crowd. Thanks to a barrage of offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets made a final push that came up just short as the Blazers squeaked out a tough-fought seven-point victory.

Offensive Rebounds

The Blazers are one of the best rebounding teams in the league; their league-leading numbers even held up when Jusuf Nurkic went down. Tonight, the Nuggets grabbed 11 more rebounds, in large part due to their 23 OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS. Fourteen of the 23 offensive board came in the fourth quarter alone, when Portland failed to put a body on any Denver player.

A bulk of the missed fourth quarter rebounds came during Zach Collins’ shift. He doesn’t have the frame or strength to keep aggressive big men like Mason Plumlee off the glass. Even in the absence of Plumlee, Collins couldn’t secure 50/50 boards and let Nuggets players slashing in from the perimeter to corral them.

Once the starters returned, the embarrassing defensive rebounding persisted. Kanter, distracted by the wide presence of Nikola Jokic, also couldn’t grab loose balls. But Al-Farouq Aminu, outsized in his matchup, consistently failed to box Paul Millsap out. The Nuggets frequently converted their second chance opportunities and managed to trim a double-digit lead down despite shooting poorly from outside.

CJ McCollum is Now “The Silencer”

The only positive outcome of TNT’s broadcast team was McCollum’s new nickname: “The Silencer.” Time and time again, he knocked down a clutch basket to halt a Nuggets run that threatened to thin the Blazers lead to single digits. These baskets came from his usual isolation craftiness: a mixture of dribble moves, midrange jumpers, up-and-unders, three-point pull-ups and so on.

Perhaps his most important bucket of the night came in the fourth quarter. With fewer than four minutes remaining and the deficit slimming, Lillard attempted a heroic three-pointer to put the game away. McCollum, with the help of a tip from Kanter, tracked down the miss and found himself wide open on the perimeter for a silencing three of his own.

The shooting guard also crushed Denver runs with his playmaking. The defense focused on McCollum in the pick-and-roll when he led the bench unit to start the fourth. He smartly split a screen and when Monte Morris collapsed to cut off the drive, he kicked it to Seth Curry in the corner for a much-needed three-pointer.

In a game where Lillard only scored 14 points, McCollum stepped up to keep Portland’s offense rolling in the midst of a Denver streak.

Defensive Adjustments from Game 1

Jokic and Jamal Murray combined for 60 points in Game 1 thanks to an extremely effective pick-and-roll game. To handle Jokic’s screen and re-screen technique, Terry Stotts tasked Moe Harkless with defending Murray and left Kanter on Jokic. Harkless’ length and ability to navigate screens better stopped penetration around the pick and prevented a quick pass back on the roll. It also hid Kanter’s inability to stay with Murray on a drive.

Harkless unfortunately missed the entire second half after rolling his ankle late in the second quarter. Stotts deployed Rodney Hood and Evan Turner onto the ball handler of pick and rolls with Jokic. Despite not restricting it as much as Harkless, the two improved upon Game 1’s struggles to stop the pick-and-roll game.

Another keystone of Denver’s Game 1 offense was Paul Millsap in the post. He scored 17 points in the first half of Game 1, but Aminu came out of halftime with improved defensive tactics to stop the post ups. The Nuggets tried to kickstart their offense in the first quarter with Millsap again, but Aminu accurately predicted his movement with the ball to force turnovers and heavily contest shots. Not until the fourth quarter did Millsap make his presence known on the offensive end (see: first note of the game).

Lillard Using Screens Differently

In Game 1, the Nuggets over-defended the perimeter on the screen and allowed Lillard to make eight of his nine attempts in the restricted area. Tonight, Jokic sagged back and Torrey Craig worked harder to fight through Kanter’s screens. The result: more midrange jumpers for Lillard in the first half, a shot he failed to consistently knock down.

But no defense can stop Lillard from finding open looks on the perimeter or getting to the rim all game. In the second half, he used Kanter’s screens as decoys and attacked the paint going the opposite direction of the pick. Denver’s defenders couldn’t match his explosiveness and he converted a couple looks at the rim.

Nonetheless, Lillard only scored 14 points on 5/17 shooting. He will need to make the appropriate adjustments to he and Kanter’s pick-and-roll game to combat Jokic sagging back and stopping the drive or the roll.

Rodney Hood and Zach Collins Show Up

After an invisible series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rodney Hood has shown up in the semifinals. He followed his 17-point Game 1 outing with 15 more tonight. He displayed aggression of the offensive end and hunted for his shot against mismatches. The Blazers offense recognized his ability to get to the hoop and therefore fed him in the post multiple times. Most importantly, Hood knocked down three triples; one came with two minutes left in the game to push the lead back to 10.

Collins continued his smart postseason play by stationing himself at the free throw line and bailing out the ball handler on pick and rolls. He also showed off some nifty footwork in the post for in-close buckets on Mason Plumlee. On the other end, though, Collins continued his struggles to avoid foul trouble. He picked up five fouls in 17 minutes. As mentioned in the first note, he also failed to box out Plumlee or secure available defensive rebounds on several occasions in the fourth quarter.

Nikola Jokic’s Foul Trouble

Blazers fans spent the day between Game 1 and 2 toiling over the referees leniency with Jokic. In Game 2, Jokic walked the tightrope with foul trouble in the first half until committing two unnecessary fouls in the third quarter to earn himself an extended rest on the bench.

In the minutes without Jokic on the floor, Immediately, Portland went to the rim to score. While the lead didn’t slip as Kanter bullied Plumlee in the post, the lead didn’t grow either. Denver relied on other players to contribute and their offense stagnated, but the ever-painful offensive rebounds provided opportunities to scrounge points despite the loss of their best player.

Jokic picked up his fifth foul with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter but remained in the game. He defended lighter and allowed Kanter to efficiently score in the post and on the roll. He did get away with a clear foul on Kanter’s reverse layup a minute later, encouraging his defense to soften even more as the luck might’ve run out.

Up Next

Box Score

Instant Recap

Moe Harkless injured his ankle in this game. You can find status updates here.

Portland heads home with the series even at 1-1. The next game plays at the Moda Center at 7:30 p.m. PT on Friday, May 3.