The Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t sustain an excellent start, and despite a series of comebacks to stay alive late, ultimately lost Game 3 of their First Round series against the Denver Nuggets by a score of 120-115 on Thursday night. Austin Rivers proved to be the hero for Denver, hitting four three-pointers over the final six minutes, including a dagger with 1:23 remaining to put the Nuggets up eight.
Denver shot 53% from beyond the arc in the game, and were led by another impressive performance from Nikola Jokic—who finished the night with 36 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Portland managed just 31% from three, going 14-45 from distance. Damian Lillard led the way with 37 points, but was an uncharacteristic 5-16 from downtown.
For a quarter-by-quarter breakdown, see Marlow Ferguson Jr.’s Instant Recap.
Here were the key takeaways from Thursday’s loss:
Early, Late Sizzle in First Half
The Blazers, buoyed by a boisterous crowd of 8,000 fans, got out to an excellent start. They dominated the first five minutes of the game on both ends of the floor by attacking the rim, moving the ball, and playing with a high defensive energy and focus. The stretch featured a pair of highlight reel dunks as well.
that's how you feel, Dame?!?! pic.twitter.com/2wq37e67O6— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) May 28, 2021
After jumping out to an 18-9 lead, Denver starting to get going behind Jokic and a nice stretch from JaMychal Green. When Jusuf Nurkic checked out at the five-minute mark, the wheels fell off the bus. The offense stalled, and the Nuggets hunted Enes Kanter defensively with ball screens. The Blazer defense also struggled to pick up shooters in transition, as the Nuggets pushed the pace to generate open looks, which helped lead to their bloated shooting numbers.
Trailing by as many as 12 late in the second quarter, Portland finished the half on a 7-0 run to pull within five at the break, snatching momentum back from the Nuggets. The up-and-down play proved to be a harbinger of things to come.
Locked in a tight battle in the fourth quarter, things were pushed to the brink of disaster when Nurkic picked up his fifth foul with 7:20 remaining. Trying to extend his run, Nurk was switched off of Jokic and began guarding Aaron Gordon. It didn’t work, as he fouled out just two minutes later. Portland elected to go small, and the results proved disastrous. The Blazer off-ball defenders gave up space to Denver’s shooters in order to be in better help position when Jokic got the ball against Carmelo Anthony. Rivers took advantage of the extra space, knocking down a trio of threes over a two-minute stretch.
While his aforementioned dagger appeared to ice the game, the Blazers finally started to knock down their shots, hitting three triples in the final 30 seconds. Trailing by three, Monte Morris missed a pair of foul shot with 3.2 seconds remaining, only for Jokic to secure the tip-in on the second attempt and seal the game for good. It likely wouldn’t have mattered if Portland had gotten the rebound, as they were out of timeouts and would have had to settle for a three-quarter court prayer at the buzzer.
Big Man Battle
The battle between Jokic and Nurkic was a classic, as the former teammates duked it out all night long. Even when the Blazers defended him well, the Joker knocked down a number of contested jumpers, both from distance and in the midrange. He was nearly perfect from the field in the first half, and while his efficiency went down a tick after halftime, his mark on the game was clear.
Nurkic, on the other hand, had an even bigger impact then his stat line would suggest. He had 13 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, but his importance goes beyond the numbers. If Lillard is the team’s heart and soul, Nurk is the engine. The Blazer offense was at it’s best with him on the floor, setting up Portland’s shooters with his excellent passing from the high post. Defensively, he set the tone with his energy, performing admirably against the league’s likely MVP. The big fella gave it everything he had in his 32 minutes. When he fouled out, you could practically hear the air leave the building.
Bench a Mixed Bag
Portland’s bench had a dismal first half, combining for just three points. Anthony, 0-5 in the first half, rebounded with a big stretch in the fourth quarter to help keep the team in the game offensively, and ultimately finished with 17 points. Unfortunately, he was about the only Blazer reserve to make much of a positive impact, although Rondae Hollis-Jefferson provided a nice defensive spark. RHJ entered the game late in the third quarter for an ineffective Kanter, and had a nice five minute run as the Blazers went small.
Anfernee Simons was never able to get into a rhythm. As one of Portland’s better distance shooters, the team needed more from him on a night when their shots weren’t falling, in particular the starting backcourt. The trio of Lillard, CJ McCollum and Norman Powell were a combined 10-32 from three. Ant logged 16 minutes, but was just 1-3 from the field, missing his two attempts from beyond the arc.
The Blazers will look to bounce back and even the series 2-2 in Game 4, scheduled for a 1:00 p.m. PT tip-off on Saturday in Portland.