For the second night in a row, the Portland Trail Blazers played a spirited, often technically-proficient game, only to fall to a conference rival by a single point. Coming off of a 113-112 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night, the Blazers fell 106-105 to Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. Once again they could not stop the opponent from scoring inside in the final minutes. Once again they could not connect on the game-winning shot themselves. The loss drops the Blazers to 32-26, just half a game ahead of the 7th-place Dallas Mavericks in the race for the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
The Nuggets put all five starters in double figures, led by Jokic with 25 points and 9 rebounds. Portland did a good job defending Denver threes, holding them to 33.3%. 14 fast break points and 16 offensive rebounds offset that weakness for the Nuggets.
The returning Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 22 points and 5 assists, but he shot only 9-23, 2-10 from distance. Portland also managed only 33.3% shooting from the arc.
Marlow Ferguson, Jr. has a quarter-by-quarter breakdown of the action. Once you’ve checked out that, here are some other observations gleaned from this game.
How to Hide a Guard
Fielding Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Norman Powell provides Portland a near-insurmountable offensive advantage. Any of them can score 20. All of them convert in a variety of ways. Each of them can hit the three.
Denver exposed the weakness of the three-guard attack, though. Somebody has to defend an opposing forward. When those forwards are Michael Porter, Jr. and Aaron Gordon, that’s not going to work out too well. At 6’8 and 6’10, they might as well have been Twin Towers as far as Portland was concerned. Porter, Jr. scored 17 in the first period, relegating MVP-candidate Jokic to an assist man and decoy. The Blazers bottled up Porter, Jr. as the game progressed, but they never ended up solving the forward conundrum except by putting one of their own guards on the bench.
This officially marks Denver as one of the playoffs opponents the Blazers probably don’t want to see...an increasingly long list of late.
Diving to the Rim
Both McCollum and Lillard seemed to make a point of driving to, and scoring at, the rim tonight. A cynic would say shooting 4-17 combined from the arc will do that to you, but Denver often overplayed on the perimeter. Portland’s guards compensated by converting layups. Unfortunately they weren’t able to draw fouls, shooting only 2 free throws between them. That’s a little bit of a head-scratcher. But it was good to see aggression from every backcourt player, not just Powell.
Nurk on the Boards
Jusuf Nurkic got a little bit of Enes Kanter in his game tonight, grabbing 6 offensive rebounds, many in a critical second-half stretch to keep his team alive on the scoreboard. Nurkic seems to have a special relish for playing Jokic, even five years after the Nuggets traded him.
The Nuggets, by the way, still remember Nurk. Their commentators spoke with a sense of reverence and joy when describing his play. No matter what, he’s a little special.
As we said, Portland shot just 12-36, 33%, from the arc tonight. That shouldn’t obscure how freely and easily they launch those shots. The amazing thing isn’t that their percentage fluctuates. That’ll happen. But that doesn’t mean the shots were bad. I can’t remember the last time Portland took a bad three that wasn’t against the shot clock. Because their offense is predicated on taking the first open shot, which often comes from distance, they rarely face the 24-second boundary. That makes pretty much every shot good.
Tonight, even missing 2 out of 3 shots, they still took them like they owned the court. Don’t miss this facet of the Terry Stotts offense. Every player is empowered to attempt; every player looks comfortable doing so. That’s not only a rarity among NBA teams, it’s Portland’s best (cynically, only) chance of winning right now.
Natural Iso for Melo
Speaking of comfortable... Carmelo Anthony looks like he was born in the iso post position. He’s shooting those shots like he was still in the prime of his career. His teammates are setting him up for looks too. It’s now an official part of the offense instead of just a last-ditch bail-out.
Some nights that’s better news than others, but again, here’s a player empowered to do what he does best with no regrets or undue disruption.
The caveat is that ‘Melo still isn’t great at creating space for others. When he’s not the center of a play, he kind of gums up the court. You can tell he came up as a superstar, not a role player.
Norman’s Ouchy Shooting
Norman Powell shot 1-4 from distance tonight, continuing a slump that’s been running most of the past two weeks. In this case, the “1” isn’t as shocking as the “4”. At a certain point, it felt like he gave up shooting from range. That’s not ok. Make or miss, he’s responsible for keeping the threat strong, else weak-side defenders will quickly become a strong-side hassle. Here’s hoping Norm’s stroke returns soon.
The Lillard Effect
Damian Lillard returned from a three-game break due to hamstring rest. He shot 9-23, 2-10 from distance, for 22 points. Even so, his presence settled the team almost immediately. Everyone looked comfortable, more normal, playing off of him. Portland’s pace was quick, but their shots never looked hasty. Instead it seemed like the timing was just right. Don’t sleep on the difference Lillard makes beyond his astonishing numbers. This team doesn’t run the same without him.
Portland’s defensive woes are well-rehearsed, but we saw more examples of a specific issue tonight. The Blazers actually played decent point-of-attack defense and helped well in the lane. It was far better than their usual efforts. But the secondary rotations just aren’t there.
Examples abound, but two dramatic ones in the fourth quarter will suffice. Midway through the period the Nuggets got out on the break. Lillard got back and forced a miss on a JaMychal Green dunk attempt, a spectacular play. But the third and fourth players down the court were both Nuggets, as Lillard’s teammates jogged behind. Dame’s great effort was wasted as PJ Dozier scooped up the ball and dunked it home with ease.
Dozier would do the same thing with 40 seconds remaining when Nurkic and the Blazers collapsed on a dunk attempt by Jokic, forcing the miss once again. Nobody rotated to stop the clean-up man, and the strong defensive effort was rewarded with an unopposed slam dunk for the opponent. That was waved off, as Nurkic was whistled for a foul on the play, but that was a godsend in this case.
The Blazers might have decent defenders at some positions. Even McCollum looked good on that end tonight. But they don’t play together and they don’t hustle for each other. It shows.
Last Shot Blues
After all the ups and downs, Portland still had a chance to win it with 4.5 seconds left after forcing a jump ball following a Denver miss and an offensive rebound from Aaron Gordon. Powell got the shot at the buzzer, a difficult but still make-able runner down the baseline. The story tonight mirrored last night’s: if it ain’t Lillard taking it, it ain’t going in. This is less a criticism of Portland’s other shooters than a reminder how blessed the Blazers are to have a last-second finisher who never seems to miss. Appreciate Lillard while you have him, Portland.
The Blazers now get set for back-to-back home games against the Memphis Grizzlies, starting Friday night at 7:00 PT.