The Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets orchestrated another nail-chewing donnybrook as they met in Game 4 of their second round NBA playoffs series. Both teams looked tired after their multi-overtime thriller in Game 3. The game devolved into long possessions full of dribbling and spectacular shot-making. Each team surged forward at different points, but a dud third quarter from the Blazers, combined with incredible offensive rebounding and late-game free-throw shooting from the Nuggets, led to a 116-112 Denver victory and a 2-2 series tie.
Here’s what happened and how.
The game started out somewhat sloppy, with Nuggets center Nikola Jokic looking like he was feeling the after-effects of 60 minutes court time in Game 3. He would account for four missed shots and three turnovers in the first.
The quarter would turn on three factors: turnovers, offensive rebounds, and the awesomeness of Damian Lillard. The teams would combine for seven miscues in the period, plus several other broken plays. With misses abounding, offensive rebounds were low-hanging fruit. Denver accumulated 5, Portland 4. Lillard registered a 10-point, 4 assist, 3 steal quarter despite Denver hanging on him like cat hair on your best sweater. A four-point play by Dame with 1:57 left highlighted the period. Portland led 33-29 after one.
Both benches started out the quarter scoring from the mid-range, taking advantage wherever the defense wasn’t. Denver went on a 10-0 run at the start of the period. Portland came right back. Seth Curry lit the twine on fire with THREE three-pointers mid-period, on his way to 14 in the frame...the latest in a long list of Trail Blazers mid-rotation players to step up in this series.
Denver got little relief when Jokic and the starters returned to the floor. Their star center is famed for anticipating plays and getting in effective position. In the second, he played behind the ball on defense and passed up shots on offense. Meanwhile Jokic’s teammates continued their turnover-prone ways while Al-Farouq Aminu beasted on the offensive glass.
On one memorable play late in the quarter, Aminu lined up for a wide-open three while a defender closed lazily. Aminu missed, but Moe Harkless grabbed the offensive rebound and converted a conventional three-point play. Somehow the Nuggets weren’t in position to defend outside or inside. When Curry hit a buzzer-beating three off of a broken play to end the half, Portland led 63-57. Glass half-full: 63 points was a ton, Portland looked good, and they had earned a legit lead. Glass half-empty: it seemed like it should have been more.
The second half started out as a battle of guards. Jokic still seemed to be going out of his way to avoid shots, setting up opportunities for smaller players. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris both scored early, only to be matched by CJ McCollum. Lillard had open shots, but couldn’t connect. Mid-period, Paul Millsap came alive, hitting three field goals, including a triple. Adding insult to opponent momentum, the Blazers ended up on the wrong side of a couple whistles. Harkless drew his fourth foul at the 5:13 mark, Enes Kanter did the same with 3:58 remaining. Both sat. This did not help Portland’s already-sagging offense. Lillard remained all but scoreless at the quarter closed, hitting only 1 of 7 in the frame. Portland managed only 14 total points as Denver took an 84-77 lead into the fourth.
McCollum started the fourth period hot, taking the edge off of Denver’s momentum. Offensive rebounds and a little more scoring from Millsap kept the Nuggets safe. Denver spent the middle minutes of the period playing at a deliberate pace, relying on offensive rebounds and dribble plays to see them through. The Blazers also took plenty of dribbles before shooting. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; many of those plays came from Lillard and McCollum. Despite guard production, the offense was miles from crisp.
When offense wouldn’t do, defense had to hold. Portland’s did, for the most part, keeping Denver on the outside and shooting covered. The game turned into a slug-fest. Whistles came into play once again and Portland, suffering long with the refs, started getting favorable calls behind Lillard’s aggression. Free throws and scoring from Dame brought the Blazers back several times as Denver’s lead went accordion.
As the scoreboard tightened, the Nuggets went to their super-center. Jokic set up teammates, including Will Barton for a pair of threes. With a minute left, Jokic hit Harris in the lane for an and-one, putting Denver up 110-104. Jokic appeared to injure his leg on the play; he’d limp for the rest of the game. On the very next play, Rodney Hood hit a sideline three for Portland, closing the gap to 110-107. Barton missed a covered three, then Lillard was fouled on a floater with 20 seconds remaining. Lillard would make 1 of 2...a rare crack in his superstar armor.
Down two with less than a shot clock remaining, the Blazers had to foul Murray to regain possession. Denver’s point guard hit both with 13 seconds remaining, leaving the score 112-108, Portland ball. Lillard converted an uncontested layup with 7.7 seconds left, then fouled Murray again a second later. Again he hit two, making the score 114-110 with 6.7 seconds remaining. Then the miracle happened...or nearly so. McCollum hit a coffin-corner strike which would have closed the lead to one, but his toe was ever so slightly touching the line, rendering only two points. Portland still trailed by two with 4.4 seconds in the game. Murray once again took the ball and the intentional foul, once again hitting both. Not one of his attempts touched rim. Portland’s final shot didn’t matter. Denver’s young guard ended up the hero of the fourth and they walked with a 116-112 victory.
Denver was moving slowly as a team, with Jokic the most obviously measured contributor. This worked to their advantage somewhat. Portland got the Nuggets bound up in more of a slicing, frantic contest in Games 2 and 3. Today both offenses were dribble-heavy and relied more on isolation. Both teams hit open three-point shooters whenever available, but when the critical moments came, plays involved one or two players tattooing the floor, trying to find an opening or a screen.
Portland is no stranger to this kind of offense. They shot a high percentage from the floor (47.6%) and the arc (42.9%). Their shots also took longer and came from predictable players and places. This set up the Nuggets for rebounds. Portland was not in the same position on the other end, as Denver has more threats in any given lineup than the Blazers do. Thus the Blazers found themselves on the wrong end of a 17-offensive-rebound night, one of the main reasons they didn’t come out on top of a narrowly-contested game.
Among the others:
- The third period was brutal. Portland hit only four shots, three of them right at the rim. They shot 1-10 beyond two feet, 0-7 beyond the arc. Lillard and McCollum accounted for 6 of those 7 misses. The Blazers outscored Denver in every quarter except the third. As it turned out, the 27-14 deficit was too much to make up.
- Jamal Murray’s free throw shooting was absolutely outstanding. He went 11-11 from the foul line, missing nothing in crunch time. For a young player in a big situation, this was amazing.
- Portland’s bench was super-efficient, combining for 11-20 shooting, 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists against only 4 turnovers and 7 non-Zach-Collins fouls. (12 and a technical if you count Collins’ infractions.) They outplayed their counterparts handily. But Portland’s starters got housed. They carried negative plus-minus numbers across the board, with Lillard’s -8 marking the best figure among them. Plus-minus numbers for individual players in individual games are garbage, but they do tell a story when entire units match up together.
- Though the Blazers shot well, they simply got up too few shots (82, compared to 92 for the Nuggets). Denver’s offensive rebounding and a slower pace in general conspired to keep the game manageable despite blistering shooting from the Blazers. If Portland had been able to wheel the Nuggets into fast motion, the evening might have looked different. Allowing them to stand gave them a chance. To be fair, it’s possible Portland didn’t have a ton in the tank after playing four overtimes less than 48 hours ago, but this was a potential advantage missed.
- Nikola Jokic was running like your grandfather’s grandfather. The Blazers forced three turnovers from him in the first quarter of this game. He finished with that same three after 48 full minutes. He attempted only 5 field goals in the entire second half, which should have played into Portland’s hands, but they just couldn’t make the defense tell. Denver shot 44% from distance. And did we mention those offensive rebounds?
- Paul Millsap again kept the Nuggets afloat whenever they needed a bucket. He shot 6-10 and scored 21 for the game, hitting a pair of three-pointers in the process. The ONLY time the Blazers slowed him down was when Evan Turner switched onto him. It wasn’t enough. Will Barton shot 4-14, Garry Harris 6-14 without a three. and the rest of Denver’s supporting cast went 6-19. Millsap was still enough to carry them.
- McCollum’s shot with 4.4 seconds left was only a two-pointer by a millimeter. Had CJ been 1/10th of a shoe size smaller, Portland would have trailed 114-113 and had a chance to tie it with a three after Murray’s final free throws.
Nonetheless, several things went right for Portland. Damian Lillard emerged from his funk in the fourth quarter, scoring 11. McCollum hit 9 points in the first five minutes of the fourth, bringing the Blazers roaring back after their miserable third.
Seth Curry and Rodney Hood combined for 9-13 shooting, 5-7 from distance, and 23 points in the game. Can’t ask for more than that.
Al-Farouq Aminu posted a superlative line of 19 points on 6-10 shooting, with 5 offensive rebounds, 2 blocks, and only 3 fouls despite heavy defensive responsibility. He was fantastic.
The Blazers grabbed 12 offensive rebounds of their own, almost equaled the Nuggets in points in the paint, and exceeded them in fast break points.
In short, this was a good, hard-fought game that the Blazers had a chance to win despite a hugely ugly quarter and some game-long issues on the glass. Had a couple more Lillard jumpers fallen in the third or a couple more rebounds been secured in the fourth, the Blazers might have walked away with a huge win. As it was, the game was left up to chance as two great competitors lunged for the brass ring in the final minutes. 50-50 games end up going to the opponent 50% of the time. Tonight was one of those nights.
Though the loss is disappointing compared to the anticipation of a 3-1 lead, the series is not over. It’s best-of-three now. As I mentioned before Game 3, the Blazers should feel good forcing a seventh game, as fatigue and the lack of demarcation between the opponents would render it a coin flip. They’re still on course to do that. Denver must win both of the next two games in order to prevent it from happening. Given the way every game in this series has gone, that’s far from certain. If Portland can take one of the next two, experience and conditioning will come into play during the ultimate showdown. At that point, nobody will be secure. Both players and fans across the NBA will need to buckle up.
The Blazers and Nuggets meet again on Tuesday night in Denver, with a 7:30 PM start time.