For everything the Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t depend on in 2020-21, point production was always one of their sureties. They rode a No. 2 ranked offense until its wheels fell off. Unfortunately, those wheels came off at a most inopportune time, leading to a season-ending, gut-wrenching 126-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game Six.
Only one team — the star-studded Brooklyn Nets — boasted a better offense than Portland in both the regular season and the playoffs. But with their season on the line, the Blazers could muster only 14 fourth-quarter points. Despite a combined 49 points from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as four other players in double-digits, the greatness of Nikola Jokic proved too much to handle.
Stay tuned for Dave Deckard’s extended recap of tonight’s game. As we await, here are a few instant thoughts from the season finale.
The opening minutes of Game 6 opened precisely the way a Hollywood scriptwriter might orchestrate it. Beforehand, there were three topics standing preeminently above all else:
(1) Could Jusuf Nurkic defend without fouling?
(2) Would Portland get “vintage” CJ McCollum or rely on some tertiary form of high-caliber help?
(3) How would Portland mentally respond to what some called a potentially franchise-altering defeat in Game 5?
Answers came in quick succession. Portland jumped out to a 6-of-7 start before the first timeout, including three 3-point makes, with each of the Blazers’ three guards taking turns making a carnage of Denver’s defense …
… Which would’ve been celebratory if not for Michael Porter Jr.’s brilliance. By the second commercial, Portland’s No. 2-ranked offense had 28 points. Porter Jr. had 22. By himself. Somewhere in the vein of Tracy McGrady and Kevin Durant, he routinely shot over the Blazers’ undersized “defenders,” got in Jokic’s all-encompassing field of vision when the Nuggets ran their delay offense, and worked back picks and off-ball guile on his way to 8-of-10 shooting. It appeared Damian Lillard’s two-day old 55-point game was in jeopardy. Ever the competitor, Lillard assumed the challenge of defending the 6-foot-10 Porter, with valiant results.
At the same time, some trends began to form. This time it was Jokic, and not Nurkic, who drew two early fouls, and Portland forced six turnovers, helping guide them to a 32-28 lead.
With Lillard sitting, it was imperative for Portland to find ways to hold on to their four-point lead. As is custom when they do so, that meant an abundance of offense from Carmelo Anthony and McCollum. But, instead of cheering their offensive mastery, Blazers observers likely found themselves yelling, “Can somebody please guard Facu Campazzo?” That isn’t the type of phrase anyone likely intended to be saying in 2021, but, that’s just a part of the “terms and conditions” of rooting for this team.
It was comedic to hear Brian Anderson and the TNT commentators taking satirical digs at both the collective lack of defense, as well as Jokic’s unusual aggressiveness for a player sitting on two fouls. The officials were in a bit more of a “let them play” mode in the second quarter, and, while the timing wasn’t ideal, it made for a more aesthetically-pleasing game.
It was right around this time that Anfernee Simons levitated from the top rope, elbow-dropping the Nuggets’ defense with a pair of timely 3-pointers that helped push the Blazers to a 68-61 advantage at the half. For much of the season, the Blazers’ bench and their efficiency has decided how the pendulum swung. They were 7-of-9 in the first half, and for a Blazers team that is 27-4 when shooting better than the opponent in 2020-21, that made a Game Seven feel all the more plausible.
In considering the box score at halftime, it felt advantageous that Portland was going into the second half with zero fouls for Jusuf Nurkic. As the thinking went, he would be able to be more aggressive on defense, flying to the weak side, and giving Jokic the trailer vs. truck battle that few centers could. He provided that. Plus his awakening on offense allowed the Blazers to inflate their lead to 14.
And speaking of two-way ability, it was here that Robert Covington began to make his presence felt. Boxout issues with he and Nurkic notwithstanding, he served as a tagger on every Nuggets cut, providing excellent help defense, and hitting three 3-pointers in the third quarter alone. Blazers wins seem to play out like 1990’s family sitcom introductions: everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, no matter how big or small. But that’s the ideal alternative to 55-point Lillard firestorms.
Then everything you just read turned around in just a few seconds. After entering halftime with zero fouls, the levee officially broke on Nurkic’s conservativeness. He committed four fouls in ten minutes, stripping the Blazers of their most efficient Jokic repellent. As a result, that 14-point lead became the summit; Portland led by just three after three.
With Jokic resting to open the fourth, it was the original Denver No. 15 who helped flipped fortunes with the game in consequence. After Portland’s “dribble-dribble-contested shot” offense failed to liquidate the Nuggets’ defense, it was, conveniently, Carmelo Anthony’s quick-twitch pull-ups that made a difference. With a few defensive highlights to boot.
Conversely, you had to hope that it wasn’t a prescient foreshadowing that Portland couldn’t find offense outside of him. The Blazers’ over-reliance on the 3-pointer, paired with Monte Morris’ burgeoning attack from range, spelled doom. Portland will have a case for arguing a lack of whistles to their benefit, but Denver hit shots too.
Odd calls and lack of defense—paired with missed opportunities on makeable shots, their own foul-pronetendencies, and an inability to generate stops—diminished, then destroyed, Portland’s lead. Behind Jokic, Denver sprang ahead by double-digits as the clock dwindled. As brilliant as Damian Lillard is, there are no 11-point plays in the book. Thus came the end of the Blazers’ 2020-21 season.
Stay tuned for Dave Deckard’s extended recap of tonight’s finish.