I know it’s summer but boy was it HOT in Orlando tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers hit a franchise-record 23 threes on their way to a 125-115 victory over the Denver Nuggets. Damian Lillard dominated with 45 points, 12 assists, and 11 threes made, tying his own single-game record. Gary Trent Jr. was also on fire, scoring 27 points while making seven of 10 threes. Jusuf Nurkic scored 22 against his former team as well.
Michael Porter Jr. led the way for Denver with 27 points and 12 rebounds. Jerami Grant added 18 points while Nikola Jokic only scored eight, albeit along with 13 assists.
Denver had no problem making shots early, with Portland offering little resistance. Michael Porter Jr. looked primed to continue his scoring streak, hitting two early threes and some too-easy shots inside for 10 quick points. But Lillard decided it wasn’t going to be that simple for them, leading a 9-0 run by himself with three deep shots from outside. Denver concentrated on defending the paint, allowing Lillard and Portland to launch it from deep, where they made 54% of their shots. Lillard’s four threes pushed him past the franchise record for threes in a season with 240. (He’d have 247 made threes by the end of the game.) The Blazers tightened things up defensively, allowing only six points in the final six minutes and led 27-26 going into the second.
Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo Anthony brought energy to start the second quarter. Melo unleashed one of his many old-man moves to start things off with an and-one while Trent brought the heat on both ends. The exclamation mark came when Trent stole the lob pass from Monte Morris and hit the pull-up three on the other end to put the Blazers up eight. The Blazers lit it up from three, shooting 11 of 18 from outside (61.1%). Hitting those threes opened things up inside for Portland, allowing Nurkic to finish some monster slams. Jokic did not fare well guarding inside, and the Nuggets couldn’t guard anything outside. Lillard’s buzzer beater at the half gave him 20 points and the Blazers a 62-49 lead.
The Blazers decided they liked the whole hitting threes thing and decided to keep working on that. Unfortunately, shots started to fall for Denver as Porter continued to cause problems for Portland’s defense. His craftiness with the ball in his hands made it tough for bigs to keep up, while his size made defense difficult for smaller players. Jerami Grant also had a big quarter with 12 points. The offensive push from Denver closed the gap slightly, but Lillard’s hot shooting kept Portland in front. Trent’s three at the end of the quarter made it 92-87 with one to play.
It was a rough start to the final quarter for Portland. Denver went on a quick 6-0 run to take the lead for the first time since the first. The Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll continued to be effective, but struggles on the defensive end made it difficult for Portland to keep a lead. Porter continued to hit difficult shots both inside and outside, but Lillard and crew did the same as they hit a record 23 threes for the game. When you just can’t miss, it’s pretty hard to lose.
Lillard shows Denver what’s up
Damian Lillard had struggled this year against Denver. He averaged 22 points a game against them before the stoppage of play, but shot only 38% from the field, 24% from three. The Nuggets find ways to trap Lillard and make shots difficult. That was NOT the case tonight. His 45 points and 11 threes ensured that Denver’s second half offensive surge wouldn’t be enough.
Lillard’s passing has been notable since the season restarted. He had 12 assists in this one and leads the bubble in assists currently. He also had 16 assists against Boston. It’s nice that Lillard can pour in 40-plus points when needed, and it’s even nicer to know that he can find his teammates as well.
Gary stays aggressive
If you’re waiting for Gary Trent Jr. to cool off, then I think you’ll be waiting a while. Trent came out hot and just kept it rolling, making big plays on both ends of the floor. The second-year wing finished with 27 points, two steals and seven threes.
The Blazers desperately needed Trent to step up in the bubble if they wanted to sniff the eighth seed, and he’s done just that. His 22 threes through four games is tops among all NBA players and he has played sharp on defense as well. He’s become Portland’s premier perimeter defender. The Blazers needed Trent to be good, but he has gone above and beyond their expectations.
A barrage from outside
The Blazers were just automatic from outside Thursday night. There’s not much more to it. Lillard and Trent’s three-point show also made it much easier for the Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll to thrive, opening up all sorts of opportunities inside. Not to mention it was a good change of pace after seeing plenty of teams rain threes down on the Blazers this year.
Nurkic is great...with one caveat
Don’t get me wrong, Jusuf Nurkic has totally changed this squad. His return (along with the emergence of GTJ) has transformed Portland into a team that could cause serious problems in the playoffs. Nurk was amazing tonight, working the pick and roll proficiently on his way to 22 points. If we have to nitpick one thing about him, it’s his finishing at the rim.
Nurkic has struggled to finish layups these past two games. He’s had some amazing dunks, including a couple tonight, but when he’s not slamming he’s either settling for tough floaters or struggling with putbacks. The Blazers only had nine second-chance points against Denver. They could’ve had plenty more if Nurkic finished inside more consistently. It could just be rust from so much time off, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Portland will face off against the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday at 10 a.m. PT.