The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Denver Nuggets tonight minus star point guard Damian Lillard, who sat out the game suffering from abdominal strain. Unfortunately for Portland, Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic was present and accounted for...repeatedly. The Blazers started the game letting Denver score wherever they wanted. With a quick, double-digit lead in hand, the Nuggets spent the rest of the night sending Jokic to put out any spot fires Portland’s deep shooting created. The Joker finished the game with 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists in just 28 minutes of play. The Blazers had no answer, falling 124-95 to go 6-8 on the season.
CJ McCollum had 21 points on 7-17 shooting. He hit 5-10 from distance. Anfernee Simons started in place of Lillard, tallying 16 points on 6-11 shooting with 5 assists and 4 rebounds in 28 minutes.
The Nuggets played without three starters tonight as well: Jamal Murray, Michael Porter, Jr., and Will Barton, who was a late scratch.
The Blazers started the game with a show of solidarity as Anfernee Simons got knocked to the ground by Austin Rivers and all four of his teammates rushed to lift him off the floor. Sadly the esprit de corps did not hold over to the defensive end, where the Blazers let the Nuggets score at the rim, grab offensive rebounds, and look at open three-point shots. Had Denver been able to convert, Portland would have been down 15 before you could say, “Bob’s your uncle and even HE can’t believe you defend this poorly.” As it was, Denver started 4-12 from the field but still built a 10-2 lead in the first 5 minutes. Aaron Gordon kept cutting down the lane for strikes. Once the floodgates opened, the Nuggets poured through. Portland didn’t stop anybody: not Jokic passing, not wings moving their feet, not three-point shooters...nobody. The Blazers tried to answer the only way they knew how: threes from Simons and McCollum. It barely registered, especially when Denver started hitting their own. The Blazers trailed 33-18 after one. Jokic had 7 assists in the first quarter.
To start the second quarter, Head Coach Chauncey Billups said, “Forget it,” and sent out any bench player who could defend plus McCollum. Portland started locking down inside, at least. Larry Nance, Jr., Nassir Little, and Tony Snell made Denver take a little longer to get their shots. Little also hit a couple threes, which sure helped. But Denver finally got hot behind the arc at the same time, which nullified whatever advantage the Blazers would have built otherwise. Portland continued bombing away all quarter, desperately trying to stay afloat. They’d hit 6 threes in the frame. They attempted 10, taking more threes than twos. But Denver was as good, if not better.
Here’s how things went. Jokic had the ball with a single second left in the half when he got fouled on a shot attempt in the lane. The refs completely blew the call, ruling that he was fouled, but not in the act of shooting...clearly a mistake. Instead of two free throws, Denver got the side out, one second left. Portland caught a break, apparently. But Jokic promptly hit a three to end the half.
The Nuggets led 67-53 at intermission.
The Blazers continued plugging away in the third. doing the best they could to score with their guards and hit other open shooters when possible. The story didn’t change much. Every time they made a step towards closing the gap, Jokic would smack them right back down. Shooting, wheeling, and/or passing, the MVP was unstoppable. The Blazers tried to get him in foul trouble by driving, but they didn’t have the chops to pull it off. They soon abandoned that and went back to the three-point-heavy offense. That was more successful. Portland cut a lead that had ballooned up to 18 down to 12 by mid-period. They were able to keep pace, courtesy of a HUGE period by McCollum, which included a trio of triples. Denver led 91-79 after three.
Portland needed a big burst at the start of the fourth to close the dozen-point gap to manageable size. Instead they bricked shots, turned over the ball, and allowed 7 quick points to Denver. The Nuggets pushed the lead to 19 and that was pretty much ballgame. As if that wasn’t underscored enough, Denver then rattled off three long shots in succession, exploding the lead to 26. At that point, it was time to start thinking about tomorrow’s contest instead of throwing minutes at a lost cause.
Stay tuned for extended analysis of the contest!
The Blazers return home to face the Toronto Raptors tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.