Damian Lillard made his return from a three-game absence, but unfortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, success in late-game situations didn’t come with him. For the second night in a row, Portland fell victim to a nail-biting loss on the last possession, this time at the hands of the Denver Nuggets, in 106-105 fashion.
Trends will suggest Portland played well enough to win. They had six players in double-digit scoring, a luxury that granted them an 11-3 record before tonight, won the field goal percentage battle, and outscored Denver’s bench. Unfortunately, turnovers told the tale tonight in tonight’s defeat.
The loss drops the Blazers to 32-26, and gives them just a one-game edge over the Dallas Mavericks (30-26) in the battle for the No. 6 seed.
For at least the first 12 minutes of this game, the Blazers looked poised to shed their label as a team who struggled against the NBA’s top-tier competition. They’d performed at “JV level” against the “varsity” teams, but thanks to the return of Damian Lillard, graduation was upon the horizon. After a three-game absence, Lillard looked more spry than normal, regaining that foot speed that allowed him to blow by the Nuggets’ guards routinely and get to his spots.
Lillard’s return marked the main takeaway for the first quarter, scoring with a factory-esque efficiency with 11 points in his first 12 minutes. This would’ve been the highlight of the quarter, if only Portland’s defense weren’t supplying highlights on the other end. The Nuggets had a five-minute span in which this was their offensive scoring ledger: Michael Porter Jr. for 3. Porter Jr. for 2. Porter Jr. for 2. Porter Jr. for 2. Nikola Jokic for 2. And … you guessed it, Porter Jr. for 2.
Portland was rendered helpless as he worked cuts, snaked pick-and-rolls to get middle, and hit on everything from the perimeter. All told, he hit for 17 points on 8-of-8 shooting in the first quarter alone. The Blazers held steady with a 36-35 lead, and it appeared we might have a scoring duel on our hands early on.
It felt certain that if the Blazers lost this game, their second quarter inconsistencies would be the key reason why. Portland checked each of its must-have boxes: the second unit played efficiently with Lillard resting, the defense held Denver to just five points over the first six minutes, and thus Portland was able to rest their six-time All-Star for most of the quarter.
Portland sat on a 48-40 lead with 6½ minutes left, and a chance to put their boot on the necks of the Nuggets. As fate would have it, their defense reverted to preseason form, with Jokic and the Nuggets punishing the Blazers with their handoffs and ball screens on their way to 20 points over the next four minutes. That provided Portland with a 60-57 deficit at intermission.
Despite their offense being a shade below its normal level, the Blazers will look back on this third quarter as one of its better ones in recent memory. They nipped their two biggest problems in the bud, taking Porter Jr. out of his comfort zone, forcing him into a 0-of-4 shooting performance after halftime, and keeping Jokic off-ball for key stretches.
Ball movement was at a premium, too. Portland had a ton of success working Nurkic in that high post or at the top of the key, running those split cuts earlier, and by the second half, everyone was in on the passing action. Perhaps the biggest development, though, was how effective the Blazers’ bench was.
Here’s a statistic to know: the Blazers are 15-8 when their bench outscores the opponents. They got efficiency from Anthony, Kanter, Simons, and energy from Little, and that helped push them to a 21-7 bench scoring advantage. Unsurprisingly, they held an 84-82 edge going into the fourth.
And wouldn’t you know it: after spending the first three quarters sleepwalking through the game, Denver’s bench finally awoke from its snooze to open the fourth, a pivotal stretch in which Jokic, Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon rode the bench.
By this point, it was clear that regardless of the end result, points off turnovers would tell the preeminent story. It was only fitting; no team in the NBA protected the ball as efficiently as Portland did, and few teams forced turnovers as effectively as Denver. Denver held the slight edge in tonight’s game, forcing their way into 22 points off turnovers, largely due to Paul Millsap and P.J. Dozier.
For all that was said and done, though, the game was deadlocked at 99 apiece with four minutes to go, normally a cause of reassurance for Blazers fans, so long as Lillard and McCollum were present.
The amount of shots Portland had roll, slide, and slither out of the rim felt eerily reminiscent of a game of PinBall on Windows XP 97. Lillard and Covington had layups go everywhere around the rim but in, and Jusuf Nurkic was the beneficiary of a ton of tip attempts and rebounds. The game went down to the last possession, with Norman Powell’s floater just rimming out, sending Portland home with a loss.
Stay tuned for Dave Deckard’s takeaways and extended recap of tonight’s game.
The Blazers get set for back-to-back home games against the Memphis Grizzlies, starting with Friday night at 7:00 PT.