The Portland Trail Blazers battled the Denver Nuggets on Monday night, and the current number one team in the league continued their winning ways. Portland plastered Denver 135-110, weathering an early storm to facilitate a 35-point scoreboard swing for the game.
After two straight 41-point performances from Damian Lillard, it was Anfernee Simons’ turn to carry the scoring load. He finished the game with a season high 29 points on near-65 percent shooting, including 22 points in the third quarter alone. Five Blazers scored in double figures as Rip City improved to 4-0 on the year, and the standalone number one franchise in the association.
Unlike their first three games, which went down to the wire, Portland built enough of a lead by the start of the fourth quarter to simply hold off the Mile High City and any run they tried to put together. Denver started the game well, but ended catastrophically, and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic was quiet all night. He only scored nine points and raked in nine rebounds. What was more concerning was his four field goal attempts. The Joker was passive all game, and he didn’t turn up the juice when his team needed it most — in the midst of runs.
Both teams came out in traditional man defenses. Denver capitalized off of what the defense gave them. Portland, not as much. Before the first timeout at around the eight minute mark, half of Denver’s 14 points came in transition. Their first six points came in the paint. Lillard did hit a beautiful layup after splitting the defense to break the game open, but missed a rare free throw moments after.
Head coach Chauncey Billups strategically placed 6’7 Jerami Grant on Jamal Murray to start, in attempts to stifle his offense, to little avail. It was the Murray-Michael Porter Jr.-Aaron Gordon show to begin the game. No other player made a shot until the 4:24 mark, when Jeff Green hit a reverse layup off the cut, from a gorgeous lead pass from Jokic.
At first, Denver was lackadaisical on their three point defense, allowing a 30-foot attempt from Lillard, and sagging off of an Anfernee Simons attempt, both of which missed. Soon after, both players made them pay as they hit a 3 respectively. Portland found success in the paint, and on the defensive glass, where they controlled the boards, especially when Jusuf Nurkic was in. He had four rebounds in the first.
Once Drew Eubanks came in the game, Billups went in his defensive bag, experimenting with a 2-3 zone for a couple of plays. He also had Portland commit to the ball handler off of the pick-and-roll, leading to two wide open dunks for DeAndre Jordan.
A trend continued from the onset of the first quarter into the second. Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone relentlessly posted up either Aaron Gordon or Jeff Green on the left block, exploiting smaller defenders, whether it was Josh Hart or Simons. They made some and missed some. The bigger picture is, they were able to get to their spots more often than not — a concern for the Blazers in breaking down their defensive rotations.
Bones Hyland came out of the gates with great energy, facilitating out of the pick-and roll and later hitting a three. Jokic was held scoreless in the game until the 6:25 mark of the quarter, where he barreled into Eubanks before dumping it in easily. If you were born circa 1990, it was a grown man move. After 1990? You might’ve been berating the ref through your TV about an offensive foul.
For the Blazers, Keon Johnson served up a monster chase down block on Jamal Murray midway through the quarter, stymieing the fast break. Grant also found continued success in the paint, with four straight points in the red off the dribble. Those were perhaps the only bright spots for Rip City up until that point. Jusuf Nurkic had two missed bunnies in close, and failed to catch a bullet pass for an easy lay. This got him benched prematurely. Sloppy play in the latter stages of the quarter led to turnovers, fouls, and a fast break dunk from Aaron Gordon which extended the Nuggets’ lead to 13, prompting Billups to call a timeout to stop the hemorrhaging.
Post-timeout, Portland started cooking with fish grease, as Mark Jones says. Another turnover by Josh Hart was made up for with a quick rebound and assist to Jerami Grant for a dunk in transition. Damian Lillard caught fire, with an and-one layup, followed by a tough turnaround 3 from the left wing. Jusuf Nurkic had an and one lay of his own off of a dime from guess who? Dame Dolla himself. To end the quarter, Jamal Murray opted not to go for a two for one with over 24 seconds on the game clock. In turn, he got bothered and got the ball tipped. A poor call from the referee nabbed Lillard with a loose-ball foul as opposed to a rightful jump ball, leaving everyone in the Moda Center incensed. Karma came through in short order. Murray missed both free throws (ball don’t lie), before Lillard came down on the other end with just over six seconds and split the defense yet again for a buzzer beating scoop layup, cutting the lead to 6 at the intermission: 61-55, Denver.
The Blazers came out with precise execution of Coach Billups’ gameplay out of the half. They instituted a press, forcing Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic to get rid of the ball prior to the half court, leading to a Murray missed floater later in the possession. Anfernee Simons was the major catalyst of Portland taking the lead, as he scored or assisted on seven of Portland’s 11 rallying points.
Out of the first timeout of the quarter called by coach Malone, Simons picked up right where he left off, with three consecutive threes to extend the lead to nine. Each three seemed farther than the last. Portland’s varied attack, particularly on defense, bothered Denver, with the proof in the pudding called the scoreboard.
The Nuggets coaching staff did not call for a double team on Simons out of their second timeout. He burned them for that with a swag-filled behind-the-back pass to Nurkic, which sent the Bosnian big man to the line for two. Then it was more Simons. Pardon, it was all Simons. If his game could talk, it would have been asking Aaron Gordon and whoever else had the privilege of guarding him, “How do you want it?” Anfernee was “boogeying” from every spot behind the arc. He had 22 points in the quarter by the 3:27 mark in the third. The 26 point swing was the largest for the Blazers this season.
A wedgie down the stretch of the quarter by Reed, explained the Nuggets’ quarter as a whole. Even though Denver scored 25 points in the quarter, it was the quietest 25 points one could witness. Denver’s only bright spots were Bones Hyland, and Aaron Gordon who registered the most individual field goals for the team.
The team in white had the Moda center rocking to start the fourth. The Blazers picked up right where they left off, with consecutive deep threes from Shaedon Sharpe and Nasir Little — his second of the game. Josh Hart remained an energizer bunny, doing all of the dirty work. He was out there sacrificing his body, diving in the passing lanes, and getting second chance points off the break.
The Blazers broke out into a 2-1-2 zone midway through the quarter. However, it was cracked by a turnaround jumper from Aaron Gordon off the right baseline. The best way to describe Nikola Jokic’s entire night, came when Jusuf Nurkic had him on the low block around the 8 minute mark. Nurkic completely bullied the two time All-NBA First Team member, sending him flying into the fans, before putting in an easy deuce.
Portland iced the game with 4:07 left in the quarter. Simons turned down a drive and brought the ball back to the top of the wing, surveying the floor. When he crossed over Jokic, he made his way to the center of the floor before throwing a dart pass to Lillard in the corner, who knocked down a contested 3, to give Rip City a 124-102 lead. Both teams pulled their starters, and that was all she wrote.
Stay tuned for our extended recap coming soon from Dave Deckard.
The Blazers face the Miami Heat next, on Wednesday night. The game is scheduled to start at 7:00 PM, Pacific.