The Portland Trail Blazers remain alive in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, forcing a Game 7 with a hard-earned 119-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets. The win ends a streak of four straight elimination games losses, illustrating the grit and fight of this Blazers team.
Damian Lillard returned to his first-round form by scoring 32 points on 11/23 shooting and six three-pointers. CJ McCollum provided crucial buckets down the stretch and added 30 points of his own.
Off the bench, Rodney Hood scored 25 points, Zach Collins blocked five shots, and Evan Turner collected seven assists in 19 minutes of play. Portland’s reserves outscored Denver’s by 29 points.
While the bench succeeded, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu struggled on both ends once again. The two combined for nine points on 3/10 shooting and had a plus/minus of -8 and -9, respectively.
Rodney Hood and Zach Collins Play Big Minutes
Hood, now averaging 16.2 points per game in the semifinals against Denver, shot 8/12 from the field and 3/4 from deep tonight. His scoring rejuvenated a stagnant Blazers offense at the end of a disappointing 34-26 first period. Harkless failed to capitalize on the smaller Jamal Murray defending him, but Hood used brute force, spins, and fakes to create easy looks out of the post. He also displayed aggressiveness when shooting threes; he notably made a standstill triple when Nikola Jokic backed off just one step at the end of the first quarter to slim Denver’s lead.
Hood didn’t seem to care which Nuggets defender he posted up on. He backed down Torrey Craig and Will Barton en route to easy finishes at the rim or fouls throughout the game. His hot hand then encouraged Denver’s big men to double-team in the post or come out on screens, which freed the lane for other Blazers to score. The easy looks produced by Hood’s shooting helped Portland continue scoring when the Nuggets made a final push late in the fourth quarter.
Collins benefited from Hood’s hot shooting, discovering open opportunities under the basket. He also knocked down a corner three when Paul Millsap collapsed on a Lillard drive in the second quarter to keep the game tight, something Aminu hasn’t been able to capitalize on.
Collins made his biggest impact on the defensive end, though. He blocked five shots, several coming on smart help defense plays. He stayed strong when Millsap tried to back him down in the post and vertically contested the ensuing shot. In the fourth quarter when he matched up against a burlier Jokic, Collins continued to hold his ground. He predicted Jokic’s slow post moves to strip the ball or heavily contest the signature floater.
Blazers Win the 3rd Quarter
In Portland’s last two losses, Denver outscored them by 13 and 10, respectively, in the third quarter. Tonight, the Blazers won the third quarter battle by a margin of three points, enough to stave off an early Nuggets run and enter the fourth with a seven-point lead.
Damian Lillard led the game-altering third quarter offense. 17 of his 32 points came in the period, including three triples. Jokic found himself in no man’s land around the arc, nestled against the dividing line but not far enough out to defend Logo Lillard. Those 12 minutes felt reminiscent of Dame’s utter destruction of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He darted around screens to fire up deep threes, scared Jokic into backing up only to hit an easy midrange jumper, and got to the rim for layups or free throws.
Once the crowd watched Lillard sink a 30-footer midway through the quarter, the momentum was firmly in Portland’s pocket and the Blazers never looked back.
As he hinted in the pre-game press conference, Terry Stotts tasked Aminu with defending the much bigger Jokic. Same as in Game 5, Jokic immediately went to work in the post and fought hard for offensive rebounds. The Denver big man coasted through the first quarter and shot 5/5 from the field. Aminu, assigned to Jokic purely to counter the Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll game, sagged back on screens as a traditional big man would. The advantage of Aminu there instead of Kanter is he and Harkless’ switchability, but they didn’t defend it that way and the Nuggets’ two-man game torched the Blazers defense.
Halfway through the first, Kanter returned to defending Jokic, with Aminu moving to Millsap. Denver responded by finding their power forward in the post on consecutive possessions. It looked a repeat of the demoralizing Game 5.
Collins put an end to that. He demonstrated his ability to defend Millsap better than Aminu and Turner in the third quarter, so Stotts went with the youngster down the stretch. His mobility contained Murray on the switch, plus his verticality disrupted both Jokic and Millsap in the post. Aminu effectively does the first portion and Kanter the second, but only Collins blends the two.
In the dying minutes of Game 5, Meyers Leonard’s “flagrant foul” on Jokic created a minor dust-up between the two. Collins supported his larger teammate by hopping in the action, but no penalties resulted from the word exchange and delicate pushing.
The two teams upped the ante tonight when Jokic sent Collins to the floor halfway through the fourth, which somehow led to Seth Curry and Will Barton nudging each other from opposite sides of Collins’ fallen body. Barton escalated the matter and the two were separated, each earning technicals.
Although this series doesn’t have the abrasiveness of the first round matchup with OKC, the further it progresses the hotter it gets. Back-to-back “fights” after four games of patting each other on the back illustrates the heightened stakes as the two teams enter their final matchup.
The Blazers travel to Denver for Game 7 on Sunday. The time is yet to be determined. if Portland pulls off the victory, they will make their first Western Conference Finals appearance since 2000.