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Nuggets Pick on Listless Trail Blazers

Portland and Denver are division rivals, but you wouldn’t have known it after Nikola Jokic stomped them.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers did not look great while enduring a 124-95 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night. The Blazers were without All-Star guard Damian Lillard, suffering from an abdominal strain. The Nuggets played without point guard Jamal Murray, shooting guard Will Barton, and small forward Michael Porter, Jr. It did not even out.

If you missed the game, the ruggedly handsome Dave Deckard has a quarter-by-quarter rundown here. Below are some deeper trends and analysis from the contest.

Flat Tire

If you want a one-word description of the reason for this loss, it’s, “Flat.” The Blazers came out missing urgency. They overestimated their ability to stop Denver one-on-one, then stood slack-jawed when it turned out they couldn’t. They didn’t stay with cutters, didn’t get anywhere near Nikola Jokic’s passes or shots, and took forever to recover from the situation. They finally ended up sparking on the offensive end, which gave them life, but the defense...oy.

When the Blazers did try to adjust their “D”, they over-corrected, a running theme for the season. They soon opted to go under screens in order to cut off drives and passes into the lane. Given the way the game started, that was fair. But they went WAY under, leaving shooters open by yards, not inches. They didn’t move with more energy; they just slumped to a different location. It didn’t help.

Portland came at this game like that button on your grocery store credit card reader: “Would you like to donate a win to help a needy road team?” The Nuggets clicked, “No thanks” and housed them by 30.

New Drivers

My son will turn 14 soon. In anticipation of him going after his Learner’s Permit a year from now, I’ve been trying to explain little things about driving to him while he’s in the car with me. One of the first things I said was that steering and moving the car is easy, especially with automatic transmissions nowadays. Recognizing how, where, and when to move the car is the hard part.

This is true of anyone attempting a new thing. The first part of driving, or easing into any endeavor, is learning to see.

Right now the Blazers are defending like student drivers themselves. Not reacting to opponents is the surface issue, but I’m starting to think they just don’t see and/or recognize them. Here’s Aaron Gordon. He’s a former-almost Slam Dunk Champion with suspect handles and not much of a three-point shot. What do you think he’s going to do?

If you said cut to the basket, you’re correct! The Blazers weren’t. Gordon spent the opening moments of the game butchering them, doing everything he dreams of doing, but can’t because it usually gets taken away from him by opposing defenses.

We can talk about athleticism. We can talk about effort. But deeper down, it just feels like these guys don’t quite know how to do this defense and are spending their time thinking about it—trying to find their way to the right play—rather than executing it.

“Medium, Please.”

Whenever I go into a coffee shop or other establishment, calories being relatively equal, I like to order the large size. It usually costs pennies more, it makes the restaurant happier, it’s a win-win. Why caffeinate your day when you can super-caffeinate it?

This principle does not apply to the Blazers right now. Most of their lineup is Size Medium. They can disguise it against teams who feature small-ball lineups on the regular. Denver is not one of them. Jokic, Gordon...they didn’t even have Porter, Jr. and they still looked like giants compared to the Blazers.

Even if Portland can learn the system and put out enough energy to defend, they’re still going to need size and athleticism to pull it off. Nothing is set in stone yet, but this may be strike three against their hope to improve enough on defense this year to make a leap forward.

Beat at their Own Game

Good night... bad night... no matter what the occasion, you can depend on Portland’s rebounding. It’s the one aspect of their game that has clearly arrived.

Except tonight it didn’t. The Blazers wilted, allowing Denver 14 offensive rebounds. That’s almost two games’ worth based on Portland’s season average. The Blazers came in three offensive rebounds under their own average as well.

Threesperation

When nothing was working, the Blazers went to an old plan: trying to shoot their way out of a big deficit. It worked when they got on hot streaks. Ultimately they failed because of two issues:

  • They couldn’t sustain the hot shooting, hitting only 13-39 triples, 33.3%.
  • They allowed Denver to shoot 19-40, 47.5%.

It’s hard to make up ground that way.

MVP

It wasn’t hard to tell who the reigning NBA MVP was tonight. Not only did Nikola Jokic slice up the Blazers in the early going, every time Portland threatened, Denver just tossed it to him and he squashed the rally. Jokic hit his own shots, set up teammates, and looked like he barely broke a sweat. He finished the game with 28 points in 28 minutes, plus 9 assists and 9 boards. The Blazers had no answer. They were too busy scraping themselves off the floor every time he rolled by.

Cumulative Whoas

We can talk about a hundred reasons Portland lost, but the big-picture stats say it all.

The Blazers shot 43.8% and allowed Denver 52.2%.

We already mentioned them shooting 33.3% from the arc versus Denver’s 47.5%

By the way, anyone hanging hats on Portland having a pretty good defense based on Defensive Efficiency should realize that they now rank 20th in the league in that category. The granular stats don’t look any prettier. They’re 23rd in opponent field goal percentage, 26th in opponent three-point percentage, and only 19th in opponent turnovers per possession. They’ve done nothing they set out to do.

Side Note: Seven Nuggets finished the game in double figures tonight. It wasn’t a surprise.

Players

So...not everything was bad.

Anfernee Simons started for the injured Damian Lillard. He shot 6-11 for 16 points in 28 minutes. His defense wasn’t up to par, but nobody’s was.

Dennis Smith, Jr. accumulated 5 assists in what seemed like almost no time when he first came off the bench. He also had 3 steals in 23 minutes.

Yay point guards.

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The Blazers return home to face the Toronto Raptors tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.