Game 3 between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets started as a battle between two premier Most Valuable Player candidates, and ended as a duel between two role players who spent time out of the NBA. For a brief time, it seemed the late-game brilliance of Carmelo Anthony would be enough to push the Trail Blazers over the top. Instead, Denver got timely shooting from Austin Rivers and a 36-point, 10-rebound performance from Nikola Jokic, helping themselves to a 120-115 victory and a 2-1 series edge.
When it mattered most, Rivers, who trudged through two months out of the league, looked as though he never left. He finished with 21 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. That was enough to offset the efforts of Damian Lillard (37 points), CJ McCollum (22), and the rest of Portland’s balanced scoring.
Stay tuned for Ryne Buchanan’s extended recap; in the meantime, here are the quarter-for-quarter thoughts.
Playing the law of averages, it was to be expected that McCollum was going to be among the first Blazers to strike. After having what some would classify as an “uneventful” 21-point game on 9-of-12 shooting in Game Two, he opened as an aggressor, and was just as spry on defense. Soon thereafter, Norman Powell joined the offensive party, and then Damian Lillard, and then, um… Aaron Gordon and Facu Campazzo arrived with gifts, too, unfortunately. Before you knew it, the game settings were stuck to “easy mode,” and a shootout was on the horizon.
As is commonplace in postseason basketball, the hunt for matchups is critical. The Nuggets caught Portland salivating a little bit too much over Michael Porter Jr.’s lack of defense, and orchestrated some sweet revenge the second Enes Kanter stepped onto the floor. For all of his rebounding excellence, Portland’s been outscored by 17.1 points per 100 when Kanter has played, a number that appeared sure to balloon even further. As fast as the Lillard-McCollum-Powell trio could put points up — they combined for 25 in the first — the Blazers were gifting them right back on defense. The end result? They trailed 39-30 after one.
It’s remarkable how much opposing centers are capable of when they aren’t tasked with dealing with Nikola Jokic. It was paramount that the Blazers carve out an advantage with Denver’s big catching a breather. Jusuf Nurkic was more than up to that challenge. He played the role of elite basketball player by day, volleyball superstar by night; no rebound, pass or shot felt out of his reach. And when Nurkic is in his zone, it’s a safe assumption that Powell is too. Those two kept Porter Jr. in the pick-and-roll torture chamber and made enough energy plays to keep Portland competitive. The importance of March’s trade deadline was never more on display, with new acquisitions on both sides making key plays.
That essentially told the story. Somewhere, the great Bill Walton might be smiling, watching centers duel it out in a battle of brain power and bounce passes. Unfortunately, the Blazers couldn’t quite get a handle on the Nuggets’ three-point shooting, giving up 12 of them in the first half. In consequence, they trailed 64-59.
Similar to McCollum, numbers suggested Powell might’ve been due for a “pay that man this summer” performance eventually. Though his shot selection was occasionally overambitious, he remained a reliable hub of offense as Portland sought to cut the deficit. Portland was collectively too reliant on the 3-pointer, which led to an unusual amount of airballs early in the half. (To be fair, though, the Moda Center’s A/C might have been cranked up to “high” with the fans back, you know.)
On the other end, recent trends held. Portland was rendered helpless on Jokic pick-and-pops. At one point, after Jokic’s (seemingly) zillionth point of the half, NBA TV’s camera caught him and Nurkic in the same frame, Nurkic giving a teammate the “Hey, he’s just that good” look. Ever the competitor, Lillard sought to offset some of that through penetrations, but relying on a whistle, and an inconsistent one at that, simply wasn’t a foolproof enough strategy.
Most of Thursday’s third quarter played out a lot like one of those cartoons where the “bad guy” grabs the “good guy” by the head, and the good guy keeps swinging and punching but can’t reach him. But by the end, it was clear that they’d been eating their vitamins and saying their prayers; the offense and defense finally calibrated, and Nurk-a-Mania was running wild. With six offensive rebounds and some vise-like defense — or as close as one gets to it in Portland — the Blazers kept the deficit at a reasonable five points.
For a team filled with boxing connoisseurs, it’s sometimes disconcerting how much trouble the Blazers have in “finishing” possessions. There were a handful of times where Portland locked in, forced Denver to shoot with the shot clock getting dangerously close, and then losing that “round” in the last few seconds, giving the Nuggets enough airspace to make a shot.
More positively, though, it appeared this game’s end plot looked like an episode we’ve seen before: Carmelo Anthony starts the game 1-of-7; you get on Twitter to air your grievances, and before you’ve even hit “send,” he’s hit four straight daggers to put Portland ahead. I’d be remiss to not mention Terry Stotts’ chess move, trying out Rondae-Hollis Jefferson’s energy in favor of Kanter’s, and having it actually work.
Unfortunately, Game Three is likely to now be known as “The Austin Rivers Game.” A pair of cold-as-ice daggers gave the Nuggets breathing room. Jusuf Nurkic picked up his 5th and 6th fouls midway through the period. After that, Jokic covered the rest, guiding the Nuggets to a competitive win. [ed. The ultimate play came when Portland hit enough late shots to cut the lead to three, then Monte Morris missed both free throws with 3.9 seconds left. The Blazers would have had a tying attempt, but they couldn’t get the free throw rebound away from Jokic. “Covered the rest,” indeed. Ugh.]
Just one Michael Jordan shy of a victory tonight.
Keep your eyes peeled for Ryne Buchanan’s extended recap.
Sights shift to Game 4 against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday at 1:00 PT on TNT.