Needing a win, the Portland Trail Blazers came out with their pants full of soup in Game 5 of their series against the Denver Nuggets. With defense as porous as a broken screen door and offense as dry as the Sahara, the Blazers dug themselves a 20-point deficit by the second period. Denver’s mission to capture advantage in the series seemed secure.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the rout. Portland ate away at the increasingly-complacent Nuggets, then Damian Lillard went nuclear, posting an amazing performance culminating in 17 straight points over two overtimes...a feat impossible to describe.
When the smoke cleared, Lillard had the best performance in Blazers playoffs history with 55 points on 17-24 shooting, an NBA record 12-17 from distance, with 10 assists. But Lillard’s teammates came up woefully short, missing rotations and easy scoring plays in the double-OT thriller, leaving the Blazers down 147-140 in the game, 2-3 in the best-of-seven series.
The Blazers opened the game with a new wrinkle: stiff defense! They made the Nuggets waste dribbles and passes. Denver tried to run the offense through Aaron Gordon but he couldn’t deliver. Portland forced him to go away from the basket instead of towards it once he received the ball. Unfortunately the Blazers were ice cold on offense, missing easy shots and hard. Jusuf Nurkic went scoreless on three fairly makeable conversions. CJ McCollum drifted on his jumpers. As the Blazers bricked their first 8 shots, the Nuggets opened up a 10-0 lead.
The Blazers finally got their first point at the 7:53 mark on a free throw after an Illegal Defense call on Denver. Their second score came on a goaltend of a Norman Powell layup. They didn’t make a real bucket until the clock read 6:25, when Robert Covington got loose in the lane. By that time Denver was like butter on a roll. Nikola Jokic, Facu Campazzo, Michael Porter, Jr., everybody was scoring. The Nuggets ended up hitting 7 threes in the period, Portland only 2. That tells the whole story. Well, that and Denver shooting 58%. The Nuggets led 38-25 after one.
Michael Porter, Jr. opened the second quarter stroking a three, illustrating Portland’s defensive issues and Denver’s relaxed ease. He looked seven feet taller than anybody guarding him, converting without concern. McCollum struck back with a couple buckets, but no single Blazer was going to be enough to match Denver’s attack. The Nuggets kept raining threes on Portland’s second unit, who looked helpless to stop them, pained even to respond. The Blazers kept firing threes of their own. They all missed. Before you could say, “Wha hoppened?” Portland was down 20. When they weren’t watching the ball clank and roll off the hoop, they were turning it over before they even got there.
Towards the end of the period. Damian Lillard came alive and spurred a 14-0 run. Powell and McCollum helped with several buckets. Improbably, the Blazers got the margin within 6 with 2:00 left. Then it got even better, as Portland started forcing turnovers and converting on the break. When McCollum hit a running bank shot at the buzzer, the Blazers trailed 65-62...a minor miracle, all things considered. Lillard had 18 points at the half, Porter, Jr. 14.
The Blazers came out in the third ready to go. Lillard and Covington took charges on Porter, Jr. and Gordon within the first 90 seconds of play. Portland ran the high pick and roll, using Nurkic as an active weapon. Denver was late rotating to compensate. Suddenly, the game was tied. The margin stayed there for the next few minutes, but Portland ran into a tough obstacle as Nurkic drew his fourth foul with 8:09 remaining in the period. This brought in Enes Kanter, making it somewhat more difficult to defend well. Denver didn’t fare much better, though. Feasting on mismatches created by Portland’s lack of defensive mobility, the Nuggets stretched the lead back to 5. A three by Lillard and a transition lay-in by Powell erased that. Then a technical foul on Jokic gave Portland their first lead of the game, 83-82, with four minutes remaining in the third. Within a minute, Portland was up 5, courtesy of an Anfernee Simons triple, part of a 14-4 run.
Denver settled down as the quarter concluded, going to MVP-candidate Jokic against Kanter. This slowed the game and Portland’s momentum. But Jokic didn’t score that much, partly as a result of the slower tempo, meaning Denver didn’t either. Jokic had 22 at the end of three, but Portland led 94-92, largely due to Lillard’s 27.
Jokic took a rest at the opening of the fourth. Porter, Jr. filled in as Denver’s primary offensive option, with mixed success. But “mixed success” also described a Portland offense centering around Powell. The teams combined for 3-11 shooting in the first three minutes. It was almost like both were waiting for the big rush at the end.
Portland’s second unit was probably more lucky than good in this stretch. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson stepped into Kanter’s spot, but Hollis-Jefferson couldn’t do anything that Carmelo Anthony couldn’t undo. Slowly but surely, the Blazers started scrambling more than defending. Denver opened up a 5-point lead with 8:00 left.
Non-Lillard offense kept Portland in the mire until Denver stretched the lead to 7. Then Dame hit a long three and hit Covington on the break with a nifty pass. When McCollum scored on the next possession, the board read 105-105 with 6:00 remaining.
Jokic and Lillard spent the next couple minutes exchanging threes, but Nurkic drew his fifth foul from an illegal screen with 4:11 left, then got disqualified 11 seconds later trying to block a dunk of former Slam Champion Aaron Gordon. Denver led 110-108.
Anthony was Nurkic’s replacement. He promptly committed a turnover, then the Blazers gave up a wide-open corner three. Just like that, Denver went up 113-108, 3:29 remaining.
Once again, Portland closed the gap quickly. Lillard converted a layup and Covington two free throws off of a drive. Just under three minutes, Portland trailed 112-113. After a Jokic score, Covington hit an open three to tie it at 115.
The story of the final two minutes would be Jokic plowing forward against a Nurk-free defense while Portland struggled to manufacture points any way they could. Covington did all he could on defense, but Anthony and company weren’t enough help inside when RoCo couldn’t cope.
Portland’s three-point shooting abandoned them as the clock wound down. This was a problem, as Denver kept their stream of scoring going. The Blazers trailed 119-115 with 52 seconds remaining when Anthony missed a three badly. But Lillard stole the ball from Austin Rivers on the ensuing possession. He got the ball to McCollum in the corner. CJ hit the three, making the score 119-118. 14 seconds remaining.
The Blazers took the intentional foul with 12.4 left. Monte Morris hit both free throws, leaving the Blazers down by 3, 121-118, and the chance at a final shot.
With 8.4 seconds remaining, Lillard rose for a three over Rivers. It hit off the back rim, but the refs whistled a foul, but upon review, there was no real contact. The refs then changed it to a hand check BEFORE the shot, which seemed sketchy, but it left the ball in Portland’s hands with 9.8 seconds left.
At that point, Lillard went to work again, calmly draining a three over Porter, Jr. to tie the score at 121. Denver missed the final attempt from halfcourt and the game went to overtime.
Morris hit a step-back three to open the scoring in overtime, but Enes Kanter—returned in the place of Nurkic—got part of it back with an offensive rebound conversion. But there was no escaping how much less ground Portland’s defense covered with Kanter in the game. (Hint: slightly less than when Anthony was in the game, which still wasn’t good.) With the Blazers walking in mud, Morris and Aaron Gordon hit sweet-looking jumpers. Suddenly the Blazers were down 6.
Kanter kept at it with the offensive rebounds, but scoring plays eluded Portland. They were left firing deep shots in isolation. Rivers hit another open three, courtesy of the Blazers’ Mudfense, Portland fell behind by 9 with 2:16 remaining.
Lillard converted an and-one to give Portland hope, but they couldn’t stop the Nuggets anywhere. Anthony missing an open three and Covington botching a dunk put-back added salt to the wounds.
A Lillard three brought it to 5 with 1:00 left, but all Denver had to do was run down the clock to its limits, then watch Jokic make a move against Covington or Anthony.
But the Blazers had another miracle left. Lillard hit back-to-back threes, leaving his team down 132-134 with 23 seconds remaining. That made a 9-point personal run for him.
The Blazers fouled Morris on the next possession. He made only 1 of 2. That left the margin at 3, ball in Portland’s possession. You know exactly what happened. One step-back three later, capping a dozen-point run, and the score was tied at 135. Double-overtime awaited.
Lillard converted a layup to start the next overtime, but Jokic countered with a three. Then Dame hit a three while Jokic swooped in for a layup. Halfway through the second overtime, nobody else had scored. The scoreboard read 140-140.
CJ McCollum spent the middle possessions of the second OT missing shots. Fortunately the non-Jokic Nuggets did too. Until, that is, Porter, Jr. hit a wide open corner three as the Blazers blew the rotation. Denver led 143-140 with 1:33 left.
Norman Powell was looking to return the favor on the next possession, but Anthony didn’t get him the ball until too late. Then Jokic missed a shot. Then Lillard fed Covington for another dunk which he missed AGAIN. Denver missed again, and Portland had the ball for the final possession, down 3.
Like Casey at the Bat, the story did not turn out well. McCollum, not Lillard, was open on the side of the floor, but the pass was tipped. CJ caught it, but stepped out of bounds trying to clear space. Not only did Lillard not shoot on the deciding possession (after scoring 17 straight up to that point), the Blazers never even got off a shot. Portland tried hard, but the best individual game in franchise history didn’t end in celebration, but frustration.
Stay tuned for Steve Dewald with analysis of the game a little later.
Game 6 between the Blazers and Nuggets comes Thursday night at 5:00 PM, Pacific.