The Portland Trail Blazers concluded a rough six-game road trip with a 120-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night. Damian Lillard did everything he could to rescue his team from the Denver onslaught, but even his 34 points wouldn’t suffice. Denver was too big, too talented, and just too much for the Blazers on the night, particularly with Portland playing a reduced bench due to injury.
Nikola Jokic scored 29 with 8 rebounds and 11 assists in the win. Jamal Murray added 25 points and 12 assists.
The loss drops the Blazers to 17-16 on the season, 2-4 since they left the friendly confines of the Moda Center a week and a half ago.
The game started out rough for the Blazers. Michael Porter, Jr. hit a three, then Nikola Jokic scored, meaning the two biggest threats to Portland were opening up early. A turnover on the next Portland possession didn’t help. Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic scored for the Blazers, but it was a finger in the dam against Jokic’s passing attack. Denver’s offense was hitting on nearly every cylinder.
A Nurkic three and some scrappy play by Josh Hart kept Portland respectable, or at least in contact. But the second Portland subbed out Nurkic, Aaron Gordon hit a sick reverse layup on Drew Eubanks and then Jokic took him low into the lane for a great shot. The latter missed, but the writing on the wall might as well have been inscribed in neon. Denver led 15-13 at the 6:00 mark, and Portland was lucky to be that close.
The Blazers threw a zone mid-quarter to try and slow Denver down, but Jokic singlehandedly destroyed that by getting position in the middle and passing. Or scoring. Or whatever he wanted.
At the same time, Portland started turning over the ball, leading to Denver run-outs, which the Blazers couldn’t defend. Denver started dunking the paint off of the rim. Quick scores from Eubanks, Hart, and Damian Lillard helped the Blazers keep pace, but again, Portland’s respectability was hanging by a thread. Lillard was scoring well heading to the basket, but nothing else was going right for the Blazers.
Denver led 32-27 after one. Portland’s 55% shooting in the quarter saved them, but they allowed Denver 60%.
Despite having a name more suitable to Halloween than Christmas, Bones Hyland opened up the scoring for Denver in the second period, extending their lead to 7 with a chip shot, then to 11 a minute later with a deep three. Jamal Murray started dishing assists to streaking drivers about the same time, and the threatened blowout became more of a reality.
Portland tried to get back in it by re-inserting Nurkic and running the offense through him. It wasn’t a terrible bet, especially since their three-pointers weren’t falling. But Nurkic offense is slow-developing offense. It’s hard to climb back playing at a snail’s pace even when the shots fall. They didn’t. This ended up making the game into a stalemate at best. At least the defense got marginally better with Nurk back in. A mid-quarter scoring drought for both teams kept Portland from falling farther behind.
Denver got a scary moment when Jokic went down with 6:34 left in the second. He got up and appeared to be ok, but he was upset about the lack of a foul call on the play. The whistles did start to go Portland’s way as the second period unfolded. Finally, the Blazers had found a way to crawl back in it: one point at a time. Despite hitting approximately zero field goals, Portland trailed only 38-43 at that point.
Lillard pulled the Blazers even closer at the 5:40 mark when he drove, tried to dunk, then got rim-check and (he thought) fouled. While complaining to the refs he ran to the coffin corner left side, called for the ball, and sank a contested three to teach the universe a lesson. A streaking Simons dunk a play later pulled the Blazers within one, 45-46, with 5:20 remaining.
Portland’s scoring ran hot for the remainder of the period, but their defense continued to be porous. At least they stopped Denver’s free passing. Slowed down into iso dribble attempts, the Nuggets looked normal, not world-beating. When Lillard hit another three with 3:13 remaining, Portland finally led 54-52. When Denver overplayed him, he simply hit shooters with the quick pass. The whole second half of the second quarter became an extended, “Nuh-Uh” from Dame to the greater Denver area. When all else fails, the Superfriends call on the Man of Steel.
At the half, Lillard had 20 points on 6-11 shooting and the Blazers, improbably, led 64-58.
The Nuggets tried to right the scoreboard coming out of the locker room by going to their big men inside. They put the ball in Jokic’s hands with a side dish of Porter, Jr. They concentrated on getting it into the lane, either to score or draw fouls on Nurkic, Portland’s only credible big defender this evening. It was pure matchup basketball and, given the matchups, it worked pretty well.
After Porter, Jr. had butchered the Blazers inside with three layups and three free throws, he hit Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a corner three with 7:42 remaining. That put Denver ahead again, 71-69.
Portland responded to Denver’s run by trying to regain points three at a time. Unfortunately, the shooting went cold and the offense slid off the road completely. Denver’s inside scoring continued. Then THEY found open three-point shooters and starting shoving that tactic right back in Portland’s faces. A three by Porter, Jr. at the 4:52 mark capped a 21-5 run for Denver, leaving them up 12, 81-69.
Lillard hit a three in retaliation, then set up Josh Hart for a layup. The Blazers weren’t going away quietly. But the Nuggets were streaking away loudly, as Portland couldn’t stop the Nuggets from dunking over their heads on a semi-continuous basis.
Denver outscored the Blazers 35-16 in the third and led 93-80 heading into the final period. After scoring 20 in the first two quarters, Lillard’s tally stood at 24 after three. Without him going bananas, the Blazers didn’t have a chance.
Lillard sat for a rest at the top of the fourth period. In his absence, Anfernee Simons hit a three then assisted Keon Johnson for a chippy. Those shots pulled Portland back to within 11, which seemed a manageable number, all things considered.
Portland also returned to a tried-and-true tactic, trying to push the ball inside, hoping to draw whistles and score with the clock stopped. It worked a little bit—Grant and Lillard made trips to the line—but Denver was ready this time. They forced turnovers, or at least stalled the Blazers offense long enough to make them fight the clock. Simons ended up having to take shot-clock beaters, none of which fell, all of which made him look bad.
Portland got a small break at the 7:19 mark when Grant hit a three and Porter, Jr. ran under him on the close-out for a Flagrant One. Grant hit the ensuing foul shot for the four-point play then Portland got the ball back. It could have been a 6-7 point trip down the floor had the Blazers hit their next shot, but Nurkic was whistled for a moving screen instead, picking up his fifth foul. He earned his sixth on the very next play, a Lillard layup conversion. Portland trailed by 11 with 7:00 remaining, but without their big man, their defense had no chance. Opportunity had turned to tragedy.
Lillard tried his best, hitting a contested three, but he missed a jumper on the next possession and then got trapped by two defenders into a 24-second clock violation. In between, Jokic hit Gordon for a dunk off of a double team. After that, Jokic scored twice in single coverage. Portland defended well on the next possession, forcing Jamal Murray into a desperation three which bricked badly, but Hart fouled him on the closeout, so Murray got three free throws instead. That pretty much sealed the game. The final minutes dragged on with foul calls, reviews, Lillard strikes, and other chicanery, but none of it was going to change the inevitable outcome.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from the game coming up next!
The Blazers take the weekend off before welcoming the Charlotte Hornets to the Moda Center on Monday night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start.