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Musing on Blazers-Nuggets Game 3

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Want to know how a couple of basketball minds see games in real time? Steve Dewald and Dave Deckard have you covered.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers played a spirited, but ultimately futile, Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets in their best-of-seven playoffs series on Thursday night. Blazer’s Edge had our usual quarter-by-quarter recap and extended analysis, but as a special treat, Steve Dewald and Dave Deckard also chatted during the game, taking a more casual, but hopefully also insightful, look at the evening.

If you ever wanted to know how Steve and Dave think during games like this, here’s your chance. Feel free to read their musings from tip-off to the final horn and beyond!

Dave: So Steve, we wanted to get the two greatest minds at Blazer’s Edge together to chat about this game as it happens. Unfortunately, Marlow Ferguson and Dia Miller weren’t available, so the people get you and me. Before it starts, how are you feeling about this one?

Steve: It’s true, the A Squad was not available. That said, I am confident that the hot air in this post could lift the Blazers above the Nuggets on its own. To be honest, I am a little nervous about this game. Portland looked awful content after Game 1. We’ll see if they can flip the switch back on in the Moda Center.

Dave: Not the first time Blazer’s Edge and “awful content” have been associated. Paging Mr. Olshey. ANYWAY...I think the Blazers will pull this out. I also think Damian Lillard will barbeque Aaron Gordon if the Nuggets keep Gordon on him. But we’ll see. I’m not too worried, as I think either way there’s a good chance at a split in Portland. But I also think the series will be mostly venue-agnostic.

The first quarter should be key, as usual. Both teams depend on it. If Portland stays close in the first (or ends up ahead), they should be fine.

Steve: Outside of the Gordon-Lillard matchup, I am hoping that the Blazers will trust the process with Nikola Jokic. Yes, he has torched the Blazers through two games, but now is not the time to bring extra help and leave someone else open.

Dave: Wait. The Blazers are getting Joel Embiid?

Steve: Anyone but Markelle Fultz.

Dave: Hoooo! The Nuggets came out trying to drag CJ McCollum into a screen play defending. That was smart. McCollum played tight and hard, disrupting the play. Good sign! He also scored right away on the other end.

Steve: Deliberate offense from both McCollum and Lillard to start. Definitely a welcome sign after the side-to-side movements that dominated Game 2. As far as McCollum and screens. Well, I will keep it G rated. McCollum has regressed in that department and there wasn’t a lot of progress to being with.

Dave: “G” for “Good Defense”! The Blazers are moving the ball through the “other three” starters right now. McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington are all contributing. That’s a great thing for Portland.

Steve: Love to see Powell getting off to this hot start. After going 1-for-7 from distance in the first two games, an early three-pointer has to provide a confidence boost. Along with Norm’s promising start, it looks like the Blazers have re-discovered the value of ball movement.

Operation “find Michael Porter Jr.” is fully underway for the Blazers’ offense.

Dave: This is what I love about the playoffs. There are so many moves and counter-moves. I love that about this particular matchup too. I mean, the Lakers, it’s going to be, “What do you do about LeBron and AD” every night. But Portland and Denver can fence with each other continually.

Steve: Welcome to a matchup featuring defensively-flawed teams from “small” markets. Both teams lack a true star at the forward spot. That paves the way for a malleable series between a backcourt star and a post star.

Lillard looks like a player that absolutely wants to control homecourt. He has it clicking from all three levels, mixing up his desire to find space and contact. Blazers own a free-flowing six-point lead just after the halfway mark in the first quarter as a result.

Dave: Since we invoked them... do you think the Blazers have any chance in the second round against the Lakers or Suns?

Steve: One step at a time, Dave. The Nuggets have survived the opening punch from the Blazers. This could be a tight one, unlike the first two matchups.

Dave: I’m not gloating, just typing fast. So, smarty pants, do you think the Blazers WOULD have any chance against the Lakers or Suns in Round 2?

Steve: I think it is anyone’s series if it is the Suns. The Lakers could basically roll with the same blueprint from the bubble. Heavy doses of size and LeBron James could be curtains for the Blazers, again.

Alright, while I was daydreaming about the Suns, the Nuggets took the lead. What happened?

Dave: The Blazers caught a little bit of the Melo Bench Blues. Also a touch of Kanter Standism on defense. The big thing was the scoring slowing down, though. They started holding the ball and ending up with jumpers. I don’t think Terry Stotts can stay with heavy bench minutes tonight if this keeps up.

Steve: With Jokic out and Paul Millsap in, I would love to see the Blazers go a bit smaller at the pivot. Kanter has been a complete liability in this series. I am all for rolling the dice on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in these spots.

Dave: Covington can play center. Just sayin’.

But the Blazers also fell into their vulnerable spot with Nikola Jokic. He went inside and they couldn’t handle it. You’re right, it was a Kanter thing. But I wonder if Nurkic wouldn’t have had just as much trouble,

The first quarter ended 39-30, Denver. I would have been more comfortable with 5 more points. I don’t mind ceding them the lead. It can be made up in the fourth. But Portland exploded early and looked so nice, then just watched it melt. Bench...ugh.

[END OF THE FIRST QUARTER]

Steve: The Blazers have to play the Nuggets flat in these non-Lillard minutes. They flailed in Game 2 when the Nuggets secured a double-digit lead.

Even though the shots didn’t drop, it is encouraging to see the Blazers fighting for rebounds that generate extra looks.

Dave: Look, full credit to CJ McCollum here. Denver keeps going at him and Nurk with screens, hoping to get fouls on Nurkic and layups on CJ. McCollum is fighting for it. I like this a lot. He was absolutely missing in the defense in the first two games, and it bears repeating that he’s trying hard tonight.

Also Norman Powell is coming alive on the drive! That’s a nice facet of the offense. The Blazers need him.

Steve: Draft nerd moment, I love Markus Howard’s game. It is wild that he went undrafted. Howard has a useful bag of skills to draw from. His first half was cut a bit short after a brush with foul trouble in this one, a potential boon for the Blazers’ reserve rotation.

Speaking of that reserve rotation, I was content with playing the Nuggets flat. Looks like Lillard could return to the floor with the Blazers within a possession. Excellent work from McCollum, Nurkic and Powell here. They are flying around the court and fighting for every inch.

Dave: I like it. Here’s the big secret of the series. Jokic and the Denver bigs will tire as the game goes along; Portland’s guards won’t as much. Run them around early, make them work. If the Blazers can do that, they have a decent chance to streak away in the fourth.

Steve: I think Millsap forgot that the Blazers tried to pave his way out of Utah a decade ago. Not cool. He’s played lights out in his last six quarters.

Dave: Eh. He won’t kill you. But OOOOOHHHHH Nurkic just hit Anfernee Simons with an alley-oop! I think that’s one more than Portland’s guards have gotten to Simons this season. What a pretty play!

Steve: Unfortunate sequence for the Blazers before that mid-quarter timeout. McCollum dug out a loose ball and flipped it to a 3-on-1 opportunity for the Nuggets. Lillard was on an island after Powell was stalled by a wardrobe malfunction (his shoe slipped off). The result: the Nuggets now have a double-digit lead.

Dave: Oh my gosh. Nurkic in this game. He is so on! He just made a brilliant play. The Blazers got it to him late in the shot clock. He got doubled. He dribbled away, tossed the ball to Dame at the arc, then set the screen to free Lillard for a buzzer-beating three. What recognition.

Steve: Nurkic, the embodiment of “role players play better at home”. Seriously, the big fella is cooking.

Dave: Ok, but the Blazers are getting bit by, “Play four minutes of solid ball, then give it all back in 75 seconds of garbage” syndrome. It’s like a poker player who wins a bunch of small pots but loses the big one.

Steve: Seriously, an extended sequence of solid play is quickly followed by missed shots and failed rotations. The Nuggets, even without Jamal Murray, have the firepower to make teams pay for inconsistent output.

Unlike the past few quarters in this series, the Blazers did a solid job of finishing a frame with momentum in their favor.

Dave: The Blazers make a nice comeback in the closing minutes of the second quarter. They’re doing well as long as their starters are in. The bench, though...ugh. Let’s hope that gets better in the second half.

Steve: After Game 2’s nightmarish second half, I am fairly happy with this first half. Fewer whistles, smaller deficit to overcome.

[END OF THE SECOND QUARTER]

Dave: The Blazers serve notice coming out of the break, going to Norman Powell. I guess they want that third guy in the offense. What do you think about Powell with Portland? Do you like him or love him? Does he stay?

Steve: Powell has won me over, I was a tough critic of the trade that shipped Gary Trent Jr. to the Raptors. For the first time in the post-LMA era, I feel like the Blazers actually have a legitimate threat on the wing. Not to be hyperbolic, but I think the Blazers’ success in this postseason will dictate Powell’s willingness to re-up in Portland.

Dave: Ruh-roh Raggy. But we’ll hope that turns out well.

The Nuggets have switched tactics a little in the second half. They spent the first half trying to expose McCollum in high screens and he responded. Now they’re going with Campazzo and Lillard. Dame is doing ok defending them, but I bet they’re trying to tire him out. Drain the batteries so the clock starts to blink during Dame Time.

Steve: Significant shades of that April slump right now. You laid out the recipe perfectly. Lillard is doing his best to respond by getting downhill on the opposite end. Aiming to get Campazzo in foul trouble is a solid counter, but like you mentioned, it is taxing.

On the Campazzo front, I am ready for the Blazers to shake off the post-Rudy hangover and get back on the hunt for role players from overseas.

Dave: It’s not like the Blazers are doing horribly right now. It’s just that Denver is making them make three moves to get a shot, whereas the Nuggets are getting good looks after one or two. That’s a significant advantage to Denver.

Steve: I mean, that is the Goldilocks zone that the Blazers have chosen to operate in for the better part of five seasons. They have to play offense at an unbelievable rate in order to cover up for their passive approach on defense.

Dave: They’re putting in the effort too! They have shots coming from decent zones for Denver...well, after slipping a bit at the start of the period. But Denver has either a mismatch or an open three on most sets.

Steve: Jeez, Nurkic is dialed in. He isn’t wasting steps in the post and his court vision is clicking. Unlike the first two games, the Blazers are in position to win the rebounding battle. Nurkic deserves the lion’s share of credit for that.

Dave: I know. Some quackmeister on Twitter is trying to tell me he sucks tonight. I don’t understand people sometimes. So...the Blazers are fighting back in the third, cutting the lead to 4-5. The big question is whether they’ll be able to hold it this time or whether they’ll give it back like we talked about above, but if they stay in this range, I like their chances in the fourth. Also they’ve done it on the backs of their starters. Can they keep playing through the end?

Steve: We have a catch-and-shoot Melo sighting. A strong shift from him could give the starting unit a much-needed boost for the final frame. Lillard and Nurkic have expended a bunch of energy to get here, now is the time for Simons and Melo to recapture some of that Game 1 magic.

Wow, Nurkic. Nothing easy, but the big fella won’t quit.

Dave: Melo. How valuable is he to this team, really? I tend to think REALLY valuable every fourth game. Also awful every fourth game. The other two are usually fine. Is it time to be done with the Melo Experiment?

Steve: I don’t know if the Blazers have the flexibility to find another player that produces at a valuable level every four games. Until they find a replacement, I can wrap my head around a continuation of the Melo experiment.

Kanter back in after Nurkic was slapped with his fourth foul. Buckle up.

Dave: Lillard is drifting a little on his threes and just missing them, but Portland’s been getting offensive rebounds off of them because even when he’s 23 feet from the rim, everybody watches and leans towards Dame. He has such gravity on the floor. Nobody else for Portland even comes close.

Steve: When I said buckle up, I did not have Kanter punching Jokic in the face in mind. Looks like the Blazers have heard my cry for help. Hollis-Jefferson made a brief cameo on the defensive end as Portland went small.

Dave: Can I vent here a minute? I hate this new tap-the-rebound trend. Just grab the damn board, get the possession, and worry about converting later. If you grab it, it’s 100% yours and then you get a 50% chance of making the shot. If you tap it, 50% of those possessions go away before you even start, then of the remaining 50%, you still only have a 50% chance of it going it. It makes no sense. Channel the ghost of Dennis Rodman and get that rebound.

Steve: Dave, I didn’t take you for a JJ Hickson fan. I see your frustration, but I think there is a grey area for making sure the ball is guided to your teammates if you can’t secure it.

Like the Nuggets in the first quarter of this game, the Blazers survived a run from Denver in the third quarter. I’m cautiously optimistic heading into the final frame.

Dave: Well, Denver scored about as often as I have lately at the end of the third period, so there’s hope. For them, I mean. (sigh)

[END OF THE THIRD QUARTER]

Steve: Blazers continued to roll with a small-ball lineup to start the quarter. Hollis-Jefferson, Covington and Melo are all in the frontcourt. I’m here for it.

Dave: They’ve been defending the Nuggets late into the clock. You have to like that. We’ve said it before: the Blazers win games by getting up more shots than the opponent, not necessarily by being better at those shots than the opponent.

Steve: There is a night-and-day difference in regards to defensive rotations with this smaller lineup. Now this group needs to find a way to generate points.

Dave: They’re making Denver start the offense 6 feet beyond the arc with 8 seconds left on the shot clock. That’s good. Caveats: Jokic isn’t in the game and Denver is still hitting anyway, but I still admire the effort.

The Nuggets are also being semi-merciless going at Dame when they can, making him defend every play. It’s the same way the Blazers want to approach Jokic, Smart.

Steve: Get out your punch card, we are getting a good Melo game.

Dave: Good Melo shift, anyway. Earlier he was sketchy. But I’ll take it. We’re at 7:30 left in the fourth and Portland is down by 3. The game is likely to swing in the next two minutes.

OH, and Nurk picks up his 5th foul on an unnecessary play and a ticky-tack call.

MELO TIES IT. SCORE ONE FOR STEVE. 6:55 left, knotted up!!!

Steve: Small-ball lineups, catch-and-shoot Melo and solid defense. Everything is coming up STEVE in the fourth quarter. Credit Nurkic for playing that position smart after that rough foul call. Jokic was begging to get tied up with him on that high screen, Nurkic didn’t take the bait.

Dave: And who drew the attention that got Melo his open catch-and-shoot for the tying three? Dame, naturally. Gravity of a singularity, shooting ability of a quasar.

Sadly, though, Lillard has been drifting just slightly on his jumpers tonight. They’re a tick off. If he could catch fire right now, Portland would win this.

Also this small-lineup is having trouble rebounding. Nurk has his 5th foul and appears to be dialing it back a little. Nobody else is tall and big enough to throw their weight around.

Steve: McCollum found a bit of daylight after that big Austin Rivers three-pointer. Jokic snagged McCollum from behind to force free throws. I wish McCollum would have sold it a bit more, that could have entered flagrant review territory.

Woof, there is the sixth foul for Nurkic.

Dave: Yup. I was going to put it in caps, but you got it. It’s so tough. Nurkic doesn’t just have to worry about Jokic, but his own guards getting overpowered by Denver forwards and driven past by Denver guards.

Also the Blazers seem stuck on Melo right now. I admire what he’s done, but I’m not sure you ride him to the final horn.

Meanwhile Jokic draws attention, leaving Austin Rivers open, and Rivers hits a three...his second in the last minute. That’s Portland’s line in the script. Rivers is stealing it.

Steve: I did not have daggers from Rivers on my BINGO card for tonight, but here we are. Like Lillard, Jokic has unreal gravity on offense. With Nurkic out, Jokic’s pull has gone into overdrive. Rivers is the clear winner on the perimeter.

Dave: That 5th foul on Nurkic creates an impossible situation. Do you pull him and watch the Blazers lose ground, only putting him back in when it might be too late, or do you leave him in there, stay close, but lose him for crunch time?

Steve: Like you said, it is an impossible situation. Covington is getting bulldozed right now. Jokic has everything working. He pulled off a gorgeous drop-step, spin and finish to give the Nuggets a double-digit lead.

Dave: Obvious by his absence: Enes Kanter. Him not checking in when Nurk went down is a referendum on his usefulness.

Steve: Yep. I’m going to say it, Zach Collins would be super useful right about now. The backup center spot is definitely an improvement area for the Blazers this offseason. Kanter is a solid regular season option, but this roster needs another defensive presence.

Dave: Austin Rivers hits another three. Lillard is not hitting his. Wow. That’s the pivot point in this quarter.

Steve: I feel like Ray Stantz in Ghostbusters. I tried to clear my mind, but Rivers was selected as the destructor.

Rough night for Lillard. Total opposite flow compared to Game 2.

Dave: So look... I think they come back hard in Game 4. It’s a little scary because they played much harder in Game 3 than in Game 2 and still lost, but I think they’ll renew it on Saturday. Go hard or go home. (Well, go to Denver, then go home.)

Steve: Look, you never want to go up 3-1 on the Nuggets. The Blazers have dodged that. On a serious note, I do like Portland’s chances of leveling the series on Saturday. Hopefully the Blazers turn to the small-ball lineup sooner and find a way to keep Nurkic out of foul trouble.

Dave: Need a steal here and a three. Instead they waited a while to foul Campazzo.

Steve: Blazers fought to the bitter end in this one.

Dave: Ironically, when they tried to intentionally foul, the refs didn’t call it. Just can’t win.

Oooh. Denver missing both foul shots only up three with 3.9 left. BUT THE BLAZERS COULDN’T GET THE REBOUND FOR THE TYING POSSESSION! Might have been a time to have Kanter in there. Portland could have rebounded it, run quick, and tried to tie. What a tough way to go down.

Steve: Must be an Oregon thing. Ouch.

[END OF GAME]

Dave: Well, Steve, what are you walking away from this game with?

Steve: I knew this would be a long series before it started. I still feel that way. If Rivers doesn’t go Lillard and Lillard doesn’t go Rivers, this game could have went the other way. This entire Blazers era could be on the line in Game 4. I expect Lillard to play like it.

Dave, are you still feeling like we are looking at a split result in Portland?

Dave: I think so. Damian Lillard can hear Father Time ticking behind him like Captain Hook heard that crocodile with a clock. I don’t think he’s going to let this one go easily. What Dame wants, Dame usually gets. It feels like either the Blazers will win as a team or they’ll lose and Dame will score 50.

Either way, we’ll see on Saturday.