The Portland Trail Blazers came into Game 4 of their series with the Denver Nuggets down 1-2, needing to pull a rabbit out of a hat to avoid heading to back Denver for an elimination Game 5. They did not pull a rabbit out of their hat. Instead they pulled a bazooka. Portland blitzed Nikola Jokic, forced turnovers, and ran the floor hard on every possession, riding a wave of energy to a 115-95 victory and a 2-2 series tie.
Damian Lillard had an off night from the field, shooting 1-10 from the field for 10 points. He balanced that with 10 assists and 8 rebounds. Nikola Jokic didn’t shine either, shooting 7-18 for 16 points with 9 rebounds and but 1 assist.
The game belonged to the supporting casts for both teams. This is where the Blazers completely outclassed the Nuggets. Facu Campazzo was Denver’s next-leading scorer with 12 points. Their four non-Nurkic starters totaled 29 points on 8-25 shooting. Norman Powell scored 29 all by himself on 11-15 shooting, while also leading his team on defense. CJ McCollum would add 21 and Jusuf Nurkic 17 for the Blazers, who held Denver to 34.0% shooting while firing 49.4% themselves.
The Blazers started the game as they should, attacking the rim with Norman Powell and Jusuf Nurkic. Powell scored off of bare penetration, Nurkic as part of screens down the middle of the floor. They made Denver work on defense, which was half the battle. They also kept Nikola Jokic to the sides of the court, making him work hard for his attempts. They left Austin Rivers, today playing a starting role, open for threes and Doc’s Baby Boy made them pay. That was one of the few flaws in their first-quarter game. Portland also pushed the tempo pretty hard, taking advantage of easy scoring on the fast break. When Powell and CJ McCollum started hitting threes—literally Denver’s only advantage to that point—the Blazers took a double-digit lead. Facu Campazzo continued to cause them problems off the dribble drive, but Jokic missed nearly everything he took...all contested shots. Jokic had 7 points on 3-9 shooting after one but both Powell (10) and Nurkic (9) had outscored him. The Blazers led 32-24 at the end of the first.
The Blazers went small to start the second, subbing in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson instead of Enes Kanter. He and Robert Covington were the tallest players on the floor. They did a much better job covering the three-point arc, but suffered slightly on the boards. Their offense during this stretch was a steady diet of quick jumpers, but this had the effect of junking up the game a little bit, making it more YMCA than NBA. Denver took the bait too. Unfortunately, the Nuggets’ reserves got on a hot streak from distance, hitting over the outstretched arms of mobile defenders. The strategy was right in theory, but in practice, those threes made Portland’s life hard. Denver closed it to 36-34 by the 8:00 mark. A Denver layup on the next possession put an end to the experiment...as Damian Lillard, then Jusuf Nurkic, checked back in.
Unfortunately, the substitution didn’t help Portland’s three-point shooting, which seemed to be turned to “off” position in the period. If the Blazers had hit open threes, they would have re-established their double-digit lead. They did the smart thing when the distance shots weren’t falling, getting the ball to the rim instead. That stemmed the tide of momentum for Denver. The Blazers remained hampered by a slight lack of rebounding and their frustrating tendency to miss wide-open jumpers, but ultimately the starters resumed their “gang up on Jokic and push tempo” attack from the first. Lo and behold, a couple of short shots later, the lead ballooned again. Halftime saw the Blazers ahead 57-47. Damian Lillard had 9 points at the half, but three Blazers—Powell, Nurkic, and CJ McCollum—were outscoring him.
The Blazers opened up the second half as they had the first: with copious doses of Norman Powell. Powell drove for layups, pushed the tempo, and continued to poke at Michael Porter, Jr. on defense. That gave the Blazers the spark they needed at the exact moment that Denver wanted to turn around the game. Instead of knotting up the score, the Nuggets found themselves down by 20. Porter, Jr. tried to shoot the Nuggets back into it, but he ended up doing the opposite. Portland continued to push tempo and drive, getting into the foul bonus midway through the period. Between that, break-away buckets, and a team-wide commitment to defense, they fared well. All the Blazers had to do was stop Denver from scoring cheaply and easily. The Nuggets had to stop Portland from scoring, period. That’s a tall order.
Right around that time, the Blazers went extra-hard double-teaming Jokic. That was the exact moment Denver’s three-point shots abandoned them. Distance bombs had been the only thread holding their offense together. With Jokic find passing targets who just couldn’t hit, the lead got downright silly. With 2:23 left in the third, Portland led 88-58.
Denver made a mini-run at the tail end of the period. That momentum allowed them to cut Portland’s lead to 27. Obviously, the Blazers were fine with that. Portland led 93-66 after three.
Powell led the charge again early in the fourth, playing hard on both ends. At that point the mission for the Blazers was simple: keep the clock running. For the most part, they succeeded. They turned the offense over to CJ McCollum, ate clock, and rode the ebbing wave of momentum to the win. Enes Kanter finally got in the game. Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and Derrick Jones, Jr. did too. With the lead too wide for Denver to threaten, it was a fun romp to end the best post-season game the franchise has played in years.
Stay tuned for extended thoughts and analysis of the game, coming soon.
The Blazers and Nuggets will tip Game 5 in Denver at 6:00, Pacific on Tuesday, on NBA TV.