The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of their Western Conference Playoffs series tonight, 126-115. The loss gave Denver their 4th win against only 2 for the Blazers, eliminating Portland from the playoffs and ending their 2020-21 season.
Marlow Ferguson provided a quarter-by-quarter summary of the action earlier tonight, in case you missed the game. Here are a few, more in-depth observations from the fray.
The Blazers came out with HUGE energy in this game. You might expect that, given the situation, but givens with the Blazers don’t always hold true. This time, they did. It wasn’t just Damian Lillard this time either, though he was at the heart of it. All of his teammates came out with resolve and fast feet. Were this a regular occurrence during the season and in all six playoffs games, the Blazers could have been something.
The Blazers had active hands on defense early, making up for the rare plays when their feet failed them. They made a concerted effort to strip the ball low, hounding Denver’s frontcourt whenever they got the ball into the lane. This is one way to compensate for a height disadvantage. Fortunately the refs went light on the whistles during the first half. Every semi-naughty child knows silence equals permission. The Blazers were delightfully naughty tonight as long as the opportunity lasted.
Mom and Dad came home in the second half, but it was nice to see them play so freely for a while.
One of Ray Liotta’s most underrated movies became the theme of the night for Portland. The Blazers played energetically, hit a metric ton of shots, and did everything they were supposed to do. They couldn’t get real separation from the Nuggets, no matter what they did.
In the first quarter Denver kept close because of Michael Porter, Jr., who hit six threes in the frame. The second quarter didn’t get that much better, as the Nuggets matched Portland’s 50%+ shooting. This is exactly how playoffs games are lost. The opponent lets you make your run, stays close, then catches up when the extra energy wanes.
In the second half, Monte Morris stepped in for Porter, Jr., who was now being closely defended by none other than Dame Lillard. Finding himself open, Morris hit all kinds of threes and kept his team in the game.
Portland gained a 14-point separation in the third, but Morris and Nikola Jokic ate up most of that before the quarter changed over. Every time the Blazers thought they were out, Denver just kept dragging them back in until, finally, they got whacked.
Ok, enough mixing in movie references with the recap. It’s totally cheap and I promise not to do it anymore.
Clash of the Titans
With the score close, it was time for Clash of the Titans, Part VI. It wasn’t much of a battle, though. Lillard hit free throws in the fourth, but just 1 field goal in 6 attempts. Jokic also hit his foul shots, but he was 3-5, including a triple.
At the end of the game, Lillard was 8-20 for 28 points. That’s great. Jokic shot 13-22 for 36, hitting only one less three-pointer than Dame did. That was the winning line.
Frankly, Lillard looked tired down the stretch. It’s hard to blame him. He not only went for 52 minutes in Game 5, he turned up the defense and drove hard through most of this one. With more help from teammates, Jokic had no such trouble.
So now we’ll get to the moment that proved the turning point of the game. The Blazers had a fairly comfortable 97-84 lead with 3:11 left in the third period. Everything looked rosy. The bench was scoring, everybody was defending reasonably well, and best of all, Jusuf Nurkic had only two fouls.
Then at the three-minute mark, Nurkic closed out to Jokic while defending a three-point attempt. Contact on the play seemed negligible, but the refs whistled Nurk for his third foul.
Right after the whistle, Nurkic ran to Head Coach Terry Stotts and engaged in an animated discussion, presumably swearing on the heads of his future progeny that he would not, under any circumstances, pick up a fourth foul. Stotts apparently looked at him and said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... awww, you go ahead, Big Guy! Keep on foolin’. I can’t resist it!”
Thus it transpired that, in a decision that had the inventors of the Skort and plastic sporks shaking their respective heads in disgust, Stotts left Nurkic in the game. At this point, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” began to play over the arena loudspeakers.
Exactly 59 seconds later, before fans had stopped complaining about Stotts not challenging the call, Nurkic got loose on a drive in the halfcourt. Time slowed to a standstill as he dribbled towards the rim. A defender stepped in. As all of Moda Center wailed, “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” in slow-motion drag tone... TWEET! There was Foul Number 4.
At home, I collapsed in a heap on the floor. When my children rushed over and asked what was wrong, I told them truthfully, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voice suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”
Indeed, it had.
The hard part for Portland was, neither Nurk nor the Blazers had done anything of note during that extra time he was on the floor. No scoring, no defending, just committing two turnovers, and then Nurkic’s charge was the third. That was it.
Nurkic leaving the game didn’t help Portland’s cause, especially on defense. Before you could say... well... a word we can’t say here but definitely repeated after that 59-second interlude, the Nuggets closed the lead to 3. That’s where it sat at the end of the quarter, ample platform for them to take the victory.
You know how Arby’s says they’ve got the meats, but quietly, you suspect they kinda don’t? That pretty much describes CJ McCollum’s offense tonight, and mostly in this series. Portland’s second-leading scorer has been productive, but not that impactful. His Game 6 jumper wasn’t sound or steady. In the second half, even his short shots went astray. Every time he touched the ball, it seemed like a gamble. Like a Vegas addict, he seemed determined to overcome the odds by spinning the wheel even more, for bigger stakes. It wasn’t that impressive.
McCollum ended up scoring 21 on 9-21 shooting, taking more shots than anyone else on the team. Nurkic, by comparison, had 7 attempts.
‘Ware the Arc!
Once again the Blazers shot well from distance (15-34, 44.1%) but allowed Denver to do same (15-36, 41.7%). Portland’s expert marksmanship was a hallmark of the series and the season. Their inability to prevent the Nuggets from doing the same most nights was their downfall.
The pain tonight came at the hands of Porter, Jr. (6-12 from distance, 26 total points) and Morris (3-6, 22 points). Reprising a theme: McCollum was supposed to be the best supporting scorer on the floor. Thanks to the long ball, and Portland’s difficulty stopping it, he got outscored by a second AND third banana on the Denver side.
The Blazers went without Enes Kanter once again, opting for defense and mobility over size and board work. They didn’t exactly get the defense. They did end up missing the rebounding, though. Denver’s 10 offensive boards for the game doesn’t look that bad, but every time the Blazers got a stop in the fourth, trying desperately to stave off, then eat into, Denver’s lead, they seemed to lose the rebound to the Nuggets. Watching the opponent eat extra seconds and score extra points made the comeback hard even if smaller forwards gave them a chance at the miss in the first place.
Who Looked Good
Despite the loss, several Blazers had their moments. Norman Powell took Denver to task in the first half, generating offense off the drive. Anfernee Simons hit all three of his threes with zero wasted motion (and nearly zero time elapsed). His shooting has become a sight to behold. Robert Covington played great defense, often guarding multiple men on the same play. He also broke the long-held curse of the outlet shooter. When Denver left him alone, Covington stroked 3-3 from the arc, just like Simons.
Finally, Carmelo Anthony went 5-9 for 14 points with 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 23 minutes. It was a heck of a way to go out. He didn’t help the defense, of course, but he did up the team’s intensity when it began to flag in the second half. The team may get serenaded with sad trombones, but ‘Melo probably deserves a round of applause for the good moments he provided in Portland’s uniform, including tonight.
The loss marks the end of the line for an up-and-down season. We’re going to review the year in the days to come, previewing likely moves for the future in the process. Stay tuned for that. Nobody does it better in the off-season than Blazer’s Edge does.
While you’re waiting, say thanks to everybody who provided previews, game threads, and recaps for you—four posts a day, every game of the year. Thank all of their families and friends who gave up time with them too, allowing them to write for us and for you.
Wear your black and red tomorrow with pride, and Go Blazers!