The Portland Trail Blazers faced a Denver Nuggets team without NBA MVP center Nikola Jokic on Tuesday night. Most teams missing their pivot would lack rebounding and inside scoring. Not so the Nuggets. Instead they missed their best passer, the initiator of their offense. Denver went hard, but they kept tripping over their own plays. Portland took full advantage, forcing turnovers and playing fast. Guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum showed no mercy to an opponent without their best player either. Lillard scored 25 on 9-13 shooting, an incredible production rate. McCollum lead all scorers with 32, shooting 13-19. It was nip and tuck for a while, but as the game progressed, Portland’s talent and resolve proved too much. The Blazers won 119-100 to push their record to 10-8, an impressive 9-1 at home.
The Blazers took advantage of Jokic being absent by taking the ball to the hole. They scored repeatedly on layups. But Jeff Green, of all people, gave it right back to them, scoring easy points right at the rim. McCollum and Robert Covington hit threes to give Portland some breathing space. But Monte Morris hit jumpers too. Portland was following their game plan: use inside shots to set up open kick-outs. Denver said, “Anything you can do, we can do too.” The score remained knotted, or close, through the first 9 minutes.
Portland found an advantage forcing turnovers; nothing the Nuggets did could replace Jokic’s role as a primary halfcourt ballhandler. Denver’s cause wasn’t helped when guard P.J. Dozier went down with less than a minute left in the period with a knee injury. Takeaways and nifty shooting from McCollum were enough to overcome 9 points for Green in the period. CJ scored 13 and Portland led 33-27 after one.
The Blazers tried to jump on the Nuggets at the start of the second...the correct instinct. Their weapon of choice was the three. They attempted 7 in the first 5 minutes. Hitting only 2 impeded their efforts somewhat. Denver hit only 3 shots total in that same span, but Portland’s lead didn’t widen. When the Nuggets started hitting threes too, it all but disappeared. Damian Lillard tried to take care of that by knocking down threes, completely successfully. He canned 4 in the period. Mirroring the first period, Portland forced Denver into turnovers, putting together unopposed runs as a result. In this case, it was 16-0 in less than two minutes of play. The Blazers led 66-52 at the half.
In these situations, the expectation is that the healthy, home-advantaged team will finish off the opponent early, leaving the bench to coast through the remainder of the game. As Portland fans know, that doesn’t always happen. The Blazers did a decent job of it in the third, though. Denver fought hard and executed well...mostly. They could not overcome the continuity turnovers. Portland was in no mood to let them off the hook either. Knowing that few Nuggets were capable of burning them one-on-one, the Blazers played defense in the passing lanes, robbing their opponents repeatedly and streaking out for easy buckets. McCollum dominated the period on both ends, coming up with steals, shots, and nifty passes. By the time the period was over, he had 27 and the Blazers were up 90-79.
The fourth quarter could have been precarious...this is Portland, after all. The Blazers took the matter out of Denver’s hands by scoring like hotcakes in the lane. A steady stream of paint points kept the scoreboard rolling too fast for the Nuggets to even think about catching up. It was the rare easy win, a good look for the Blazers.
Stay tuned for analysis of the game coming up soon!
The Blazers draw the Sacramento Kings tomorrow at 7:00 PM, Pacific.