The Portland Trail Blazers blasted the socks off of the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of their playoffs series on Saturday afternoon. Down 1-2, the Blazers came out with a flaming fireball attack, plowing their way to a 30-point lead and a 115-95 eventual victory.
You can read a quarter-by-quarter account of Portland’s stirring performance in our instant recap. Once you know what happened, here are the technical details that made the victory possible, many of which the Blazers will be relying on to carry them through to more wins.
Game 4 of this series all but justifies the Trail Blazers exchanging Gary Trent, Jr. for Norman Powell at this year’s trade deadline. Whether or not Powell stayed long-term, the Blazers hoped he would make a difference in the season’s stretch run and the playoffs.
What a difference he made today.
Powell not only started out Portland’s hot scoring with a layup and a chip shot, he jump-started Portland’s defense. Nikola Jokic was the focus for the Blazers from the tip, and appropriately so. When Portland chose to swarm the MVP, Michael Porter, Jr. was the next scorer down the chain. His 6’10 frame and multi-range scoring ability make him a handful on paper for the 6’4 Powell.
Today Powell took that paper, wadded it into a ball, stuck it in his mouth, and patooied it through a straw back between Porter, Jr’s eyes.
In fact Powell spent the game so far up in Porter, Jr’s grill that the Nuggets needed tongs and an oven mitt to get him out. Powell kept his hands in Porter’s business, becoming the lead player running down the court the other direction when his larger opponent couldn’t keep up with him.
At the end of the game, Porter, Jr. had taken just 3 shots, hitting 1. There’s not even a word for that stat. It’s so far off the bottom of the bell curve, it’s fallen off the tower. Denver’s second-biggest threat had 0 free throw attempts and committed 2 turnovers besides.
Oh, and Powell also ended up as Portland’s LEADING SCORER with 29 points on 11-15 shooting, 4-4 from the arc.
In short, Powell annihilated the Nuggets. The rest of the Blazers followed in his wake.
Behind Powell, the Blazers made a concerted effort to score off the drive, even in the halfcourt. Portland also spent the early part of the game feeding Jusuf Nurkic in the lane versus Jokic and an extended Denver defense.
In effect, the Blazers capitalized on the looming shadow of their three-point threat instead of shining a spotlight on it, in effect getting two kinds of scoring opportunity for the price of one. The Blazers scored 46 in the paint, their second straight big night in the middle.
As the game wore on, Portland’s distance shooters became more comfortable, likely because they were more open. The early lane attack started that progression. Playing inside-out was a sound plan.
Let the Bodies Hit the Floor
In the second period, Jusuf Nurkic went to the hardwood in order to poke away, then recover, a steal from Nikola Jokic. The single play didn’t matter as much as the symbolism. Nurkic had some sharp words about Portland’s effort after Game 3, while national commentators had sharper words about him. Being willing to go hard—diving to the floor, a move the Blazers haven’t seen in ages—set the tone for the game. It’s exactly what the smoothly-polished Blazers have been missing.
Any Card but the Joker
Portland had an obvious focus on Nikola Jokic from the opening bell and didn’t let off for an instant. Nurkic stood at the fulcrum of the scheme, but just about every teammate who took the floor also took part. This was a far cry from the “let Joker score, but keep him from passing” strategy of Game 1. Every Jokic shot was contested, and most of his steps came uphill, against a blizzard of contact. As a result, the rest of the Nuggets looked good. The Joker ended up shooting 7-18 for just 16 points.
The recipe for Portland’s success was simple: stay in front of Jokic, cede him moves to the edges of the court, then let him fire jump shots come over outstretched fingertips. It was a stout and effective strategy. Denver will probably be ready in Game 5, so the Blazers will need to adjust, but they shouldn’t abandon the approach entirely. Watching Jokic work hard was welcome, and critical to Portland’s success.
If the Blazers had a defensive weakness today, it was (believe it or not), containing Facu Campazzo. Early in the game, he broke down Damian Lillard on drives or off screens multiple times. With Campazzo free running downhill. the Blazers had to rotate to stop him. That left better scorers open. (“Better scorers” here means, “Anyone besides Campazzo”.) Lillard caught the defensive energy from his team as the game progressed and the threat subsided, but this is something to keep an eye on. Denver isn’t stupid. If you give them an angle, they’re doing to drive or pass through it.
Energy was the name of the game for the Blazers today. It showed up most demonstrably on the defensive end. We already mentioned Nurkic diving to the floor and Powell containing Porter, Jr., but that was only the tip of the iceberg. Team-wide, Portland’s rotations and rebounds were aggressive and quick. They weren’t just delivering lines off a script; they chewed up the scenery.
That energy showed up on offense, as well. The Blazers scored 20 points on the break in this game, a veritable feast. They weren’t cheap run-outs either. They came off of hard contests and hard rebounds, two things the Nuggets abandoned.
To the victor go the spoils, but to the fast and aggressive goes the victory.
Proving it Every Play
The point bears repeating. The Blazers basically played the scheme and style they wanted to play in Game 3, but they lost. They changed a few things up in Game 4, but the difference didn’t come in system as much as selling out to execute it. Portland played like every possession mattered.
If anything, this was an inversion of Game 2, wherein the Nuggets brought fire while Portland cruised on their perceived series advantage. We don’t often see consistent passion from the smooth-as-silk Blazers. It made an incredible difference today.
Anybody who remembers the the old arcade game Missile Command will recall that the game challenged you to defend against projectiles coming from various parts of the screen, descending on your home soil with inexorable persistence. That’s exactly what the Nuggets try to do on offense. They want to bait the Blazers into choosing an area of the court to watch, then score elsewhere.
Frankly, even in a blowout, Denver’s plan worked for significant portions of the game.
The Blazers have three targets on defense: the rim, the arc, and wherever Nikola Jokic is standing. On a good day, they can cover two. When things go bad, they only make it to one. Portland basically covered two, maybe two-and-a-half, today.
Once again, the Nuggets found themselves cursed by an inability to hit open threes. They shot 13-44, 29.5% from the arc. Not all of that was Portland’s doing. The Blazers chose to cede the arc in favor of patrolling the lane and sending help against Jokic. Because Denver missed from distance, it worked brilliantly.
The hope for Portland is that even if the Nuggets shoot better in Game 5, it won’t be worth 30 points...the margin the Blazers built up today. Flip a coin whether that hope holds true, but the choice is a smart one nonetheless.
Kanter Out, Hollis-Jefferson In
Head Coach Terry Stotts brought in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to fill Enes Kanter’s bench minutes during the second quarter shift today. The idea was to go with mobile defense over size and rebounding.
In theory, it should have worked. It kind of did in practice...maybe? Denver did have to work for their shots. Unfortunately, this was also the stretch where they made their biggest run of the game outside of garbage time. Their jumpers started falling and they erased a 10-point Portland lead instantaneously, playing against the “new, improved” second unit. It’ll be interesting to see whether the experiment gets repeated in Game 5. The jury’s still out for sure.
Kanter did see 3 minutes of garbage-time play. Considering that the game was all but decided late in the third period, 3 minutes isn’t a lot. He seems to be DEEP in the bench rotation at the moment. But that can change with one good performance in the playoffs. Stay tuned.
Lillard Turns a Corner
The name synonymous with Portland analysis—conspicuous by its absence so far—is Damian Lillard. The superstar had an off-shooting day, making 1 of 10 shots for 10 points. He added 8 rebounds and 10 assists, plus a couple of notable developments.
First, Lillard should be praised for the way he set up teammates. For all his well-deserved glory, Dame has two modes: score a ton or toss a perimeter pass to someone else, saying, “Your turn!” He dominates the offense or goes laissez faire.
Lillard did neither in Game 4. He made hard cuts to the rim, then hit teammates for possessions with active, open potential. The Blazers didn’t just score on kick-out threes. In fact they missed many of those. Instead Lillard bent the defense, got the ball to another guard, and that guard either penetrated or made the second pass to a wide-open shooter. The Nuggets simply couldn’t handle the aggressive, but not dominant, version of Dame, let alone the scorers playing off of him. Denver didn’t even know where to begin.
As the game wound on, Lillard also upped his defensive game. Those first half cuts by Campazzo referenced above became ineffective second-half bail-outs, leaving Lillard in place by the rim to either help on defense or grab a rebound. When Dame stayed in front of his man, Portland’s defense Dynamaxed into the monster we saw late in the season.
Lillard deserves credit for both of these wrinkles. They were as important to the Blazers as any amount of scoring. Portland will need them to continue in Games 5 and 6.
The Blazers and Nuggets will tip Game 5 in Denver at 6:00, Pacific on Tuesday, on NBA TV.