The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets battled through four overtimes on Friday night before the Blazers emerged with a 140-137 victory. The headlines have blared ever since, speaking of CJ McCollum’s copious scoring, Rodney Hood’s timely shooting, and Enes Kanter’s perseverance through pain. Beneath those stirring melodies, though, the 68-minute affair rang with plenty of harmony and subtext. Here are five things we might be under-rating from the instant playoffs classic.
The Game was Epic for More than Just Length
Playing only the second quadruple-overtime game in NBA playoffs history is, by nature, historic. It’s literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A game like that validates every claim of talent, endurance, and competitiveness in the sport and among the teams involved.
Extension of time wasn’t the only distinguishing feature, though. As colleague Ben Golliver of the Washington Post pointed out last night, the game appeared to belong to either team at various junctures.
In four-overtime loss to Blazers, Nuggets led...— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 4, 2019
- 100-98 with 1:05 left in regulation
- 109-107 with 9 seconds left in 1OT
- 129-127 with 9 seconds left in 3OT
- 136-135 with 19 seconds left in 4OT
Advantages lost and retaken tell the story of this contest. The Blazers didn’t come out with the best advantage as much as they came out with the final one.
The Blazers Are Now a Veteran Team
In the end, the major differentiation between the two teams was less talent, style, or endurance than experience. Denver’s opportunities came in rushing waves. They never quite reached the high-water mark, always cresting just a hair too early, dragged back by the undertow of subtle miscues. They didn’t manage the clock. They allowed the sideline to become a second defender. They missed a pass to a clearly-open shooter on a game-winning possession.
Portland made mistakes too, but theirs came mostly in finishing plays, not in conceiving them. Denver might actually have been more dominant than Portland in the contest, but the Blazers milked the most out of each possession and remained unfazed in nearly every situation. When the spotlight shone brightest and the pressure rose, Denver went up and down; Portland stayed Portland.
This should have looked familiar to Blazers fans, as it replays old stories for them from the Brandon Roy era, also the Lamarcus Aldridge-Damian Lillard playoffs runs. The Blazers were the young, talented team in those scenarios. Despite their prowess, veteran teams found edges against them and ultimately prevailed.
Now the Blazers are veterans. The 2019 post-season is fast becoming the finishing kiln, hardening them into final form.
From this moment on, no matter what else happens, they will have “been through it”. They’ll be able to look back on last-second possessions and four-overtime marathons and know that they’ve handled it. No matter where the players end up, in NBA locker rooms and post-retirement radio interviews, they’ll be the ones telling grizzled stories.
In the short term, Blazers players will also have confidence in each other and the system through trying times...a characteristic lacking in prior years when the remedy to adversity involved plenty of hero-ball.
Paul Millsap Is Good
Want further evidence of the value of experience in such situations? Who was the one, inevitably bankable Nuggets player during the extra frames last night? Veteran forward Paul Millsap...a tenured All-Star who scored and defended as if he were playing Sunday afternoon ball in a park even in the midst of a multi-overtime crucible. His footwork, release, soft hands, and court spacing remained unchanged. That’s a testament to his talent, also to his tenure. He knew basketball, the way the Blazers now seem to know and his Nuggets teammates didn’t.
Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless Were Key
Though Portland’s starting forward tandem has been (rightly) critiqued for mercurial contributions, last night they were everything the Blazers could have hoped. As the slugfest devolved from pretty offense into a battle of defensive rotations and offensive rebounds. Aminu and Harkless stood at the heart of both.
Throughout the game, the Blazers had trouble defending when Denver moved the ball. As soon as the Nuggets bogged down into exploiting matchups—a frequent occurrence as they fatigued—Aminu’s and Harkless’ help coverage made clean attempts difficult. Their offensive rebounds, six each, kept opportunities alive for teammates. A huge added bonus: they fit into the offense seamlessly.
Harkless scored five critical points with two minutes left in regulation, adding spice to an otherwise poor-shooting night for both (8-23 from the field combined). Field goal percentage didn’t matter as much as decision-making. When the forwards had a shot, they took it, making Denver respect the threat. When they didn’t have a good look, they passed. Seven assists between them was great, but the lack of hesitation and indecision proved just as powerful. With the ball moving to, and through, the hands of all five Portland players, shots came quicker and cleaner, forcing the Nuggets to work hard for 48 minutes (and beyond) rather than loading one side of the floor against 2.5 players and coasting through obvious sets.
This is Basketball, Not Drama
Game 3 was the most dramatic extended performance you’ll ever see. That’s valid as long as it remains a self-contained story. The minute the drama leaks beyond the final buzzer of the fourth overtime into future implications, it becomes misleading.
The Blazers proved themselves resilient in any situation last night. They further fatigued Denver, a possibly-underrated sub-theme to the series. Those after-effects are undeniable.
The Blazers did not win the series with this victory. They did not, and could not, put away the Nuggets in the game itself, let alone for all eternity. Every time the Blazers got an edge, Denver closed it, and vice-versa. Portland’s triumph came over exhaustion and the clock as much as over the opponent.
Denver might be susceptible to emotional collapse because of their youth, but if they hold it together, they’re perfectly capable of winning Game 4 by double digits...not because they’re inherently superior, but because that sometimes happens between evenly-matched teams.
The fourth game in the series, and all thereafter, will be played baseline to baseline on a hardwood court, not on a stage. The aftermath of Game 3 is a high point for the Blazers for sure. It’s up to Portland to follow through, making sure it’s a summit of one series, not of their entire post-season.