In what looked to at first be an unforgettable duel between two of the NBA’s brightest superstars, the Denver Nuggets’ aggressiveness and urgency proved to be a test too tall for the Portland Trail Blazers. Anchored by a 38-point, 8-rebound masterpiece from Nikola Jokic, Denver was able to tie the series up at one game apiece with a chippy, physical 128-109 victory.
For one half, Jokic — despite nearly being on pace for a 50-point triple-double — served as merely a supporting character in the world of Damian Lillard. The Blazers star was brilliant in his own right, with 42 points and 10 assists, the bulk of it coming in the first half, before the Nuggets’ adjustments. But from the opening tip, it was clear who wanted it more.
Stay tuned for Steve Dewald’s extended recap. In the meantime, here are some thoughts from a night that included two flagrant fouls, two technicals, 58 free throws, and one disappointing loss.
It was almost commonplace to expect the Denver Nuggets to go on one of those “Oh crap, we’re down 0-1 in the series?” runs to start Game Two. And that they did, jumping out to a quick 13-point lead on the backs of cross screens, quick offense, and a ton of production from Jokic.
Denver’s altitude is always a common talking point, but you know what else was in the air? Tension. Six minutes into Game Two, each team drew a technical foul — as Michael Porter Jr. and Jusuf Nurkic had a scuffle on their way to the benches — and a flagrant foul. And Denver’s crowd supplied enough boo birds to have you thinking Portland had just distracted the ref, eye-poked the opponent, and cheated their way to the heavyweight championship.
In response, Portland went to a myopic, yet productive strategy. It revolved around pick-and-rolls with Damian Lillard, drive-and-kicks with Lillard, and if that didn’t work, well, how about a deep shot from Damian Lillard? Predictably, that mentality worked ideally enough. Portland withstood Jokic’s predicted haymaker (14 first quarter points), five turnovers in the opening period (they had six in all of Game One), and cut Denver’s lead to just six.
Mere seconds into Game 2, it was evident that Nuggets head coach Michael Malone — not “Mike” — successfully installed the philosophy of hitting the Blazers in the mouths early. But, well ... someone took that literally, colliding with Anfernee Simons to the point that he bled and he had to go to the locker room. That moment may have only been a minor footnote, but it highlighted a bigger point: the Blazers, for all of their underdog mystique, seemed perplexed when tasked with being the aggressors. Denver took their lunch money and made reservations to come over for dinner, too.
Take your pick of statistics. At the time of Damian Lillard’s 3-point firestorm that cut Denver’s 18-point lead to 11, Denver owned a 28-8 edge in points in the paint, had a 67.8 field goal percentage, and subsequently kept the Blazers from getting a single first half point in transition. The “positive” is that it allowed Blazers fans to see some old friends; frustrated with Michael Porter Jr.’s detangling of the Blazers’ defense, he went deeper to his bench and threw out Derrick Jones Jr. Sure enough, it worked.
Only one thing truly mattered, though: Damian Lillard. In less than five minutes, Lillard scored 22 points, making the total 32 for the half. With a few wrist flicks, he threatened to turn Jokic into a quick note instead of the main story. Unfortunately, though, the Nuggets returned every big play, hanging on to a 73-61 halftime advantage.
For the “Blazers should have traded for Aaron Gordon” camp, the third quarter of Game Two may serve as the ultimate rebuttal. Malone made the game’s biggest adjustment, putting the 6-foot-8 Gordon on Lillard, a change of pace and size from those Facu Campazzo matchups. It seemed to briefly overwhelm Portland to the point that they weren’t quite able to capitalize and exploit the players who were in the floor in Campazzo, Porter Jr., Jokic, and Austin Rivers.
As if on cue, though, McCollum seemed to recognize the need to become a capable alpha, and, save for a controversial flagrant foul, he was up to the challenge. Portland’s lackluster defense and Lillard’s heroics to abate that were the preeminent topics, but their lack of help compared to Game One deserves mention. Heading into the fourth, Lillard and McCollum were a combined 18-of-29 with 11 3-pointers and 57 points — 40 from Lillard. The rest of the team? Seven players combined to shoot 9-of-26. As a result, they trailed by 14.
It’s difficult to call a double-digit game a “seesaw battle,” but that’s largely what the final period was. Portland went back-and-forth with Denver, with the lead never ballooning beyond 13, and never creeping into single-digits. The Nuggets always had an answer — Monte Morris hit a 17-foot stop-and-go jumper on McCollum that might have hurt Denver fans more than it hurt Portland fans for how similar it was to 2019 — and if they didn’t, they could count on a whistle or a Blazers mental mistake.
The biggest storyline was Jusuf Nurkic’s disqualification after a sixth foul, a luxury that allowed the Nuggets to find rest for Jokic. By the time he returned, he was fresh enough to help step up on Lillard screens, battle Enes Kanter on the glass, and chip in with scoring himself.
On this night, there would be no dramatic finish; no uplifting postgame interview from one of the Blazers’ stars. Instead, the Nuggets found another shovel to help dig the Blazers deeper into the hole they fell into. The lead ballooned into the 20s, and all sights were presumably set towards Game 3.
Keep your eyes peeled for Steve Dewald’s extended recap here shortly.
The series shifts to Portland in Game 3, where the Blazers will welcome the Nuggets on Thursday, 7:30 PT.