The Denver Nuggets disposed of the Portland Trail Blazers 120-107 on Friday night, Portland’s fourth loss in an exhausting six-game road trip. Damian Lillard kept his team afloat in the first half but nothing would overcome Portland’s lack of defense against Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter, Jr.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here, including the account of a 35-16 third period for Denver that pretty much sealed the game. Once you’ve got a handle on that, here are other observations from the evening.
Dame Keeps on Giving
Damian Lillard was the only reason the Blazers had a ghost of a chance in this game. For reference, Portland was shooting above 50% for much of the evening but still trailing by 8-13 points because their defense couldn’t stop Denver from shooting better. But Denver couldn’t stop Dame either. He drew fouls, drove for tons of points in the paint, and then started hitting threes. Lillard had 20 points at the half and finished with 34. As is his wont, when Denver committed extra men, he set up teammates brilliantly, accumulating 8 assists.
Stats don’t tell the whole story, either. Portland was like a flopping fish on the pier midway through the second period. Denver was up 13 and rolling. All they had to do was throw the Blazers in the back of their truck and cruise home. Lillard not only kicked his team back into the water, he morphed them into sharks. His energy and drive put the Blazers into winning mode when nothing else could.
Many of you will be familiar with the mathematical concept of “absolute value”. It counts how far away a number is from zero on the number line, regardless of whether that’s positive or negative. In other words, the absolute value of 5 and -5 are both 5. Or, in a homely, but semi-magic, way, absolute value turns every number into a positive number.
Damian Lillard was the absolute value for the Blazers in Denver tonight. He turned their -8 into a +8 with his aggression, drive, and scoring talent. That he couldn’t bring them all the way back reflects more on the team’s situation right now than his talent. You already knew Dame was special. Take a moment this evening to remember just how much that affects this team.
Despite their offensive success (see above), the Blazers were visibly out-sized by Denver’s frontcourt. Michael Porter, Jr. is the traditional example. He ruined Portland in the second half, finishing the night with 18. Josh Hart has trouble guarding him under the best of circumstances. But even when Hart did fine. Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic made mincemeat out of Portland’s defense. Joker passed his way to paydirt while Gordon drove and dunked. Jusuf Nurkic actually did a credible job patrolling the middle on defense, but whenever he sat, it became a field day for the Nuggets in the lane. Drew Eubanks had little chance individually or as part of the team scheme.
Full credit to Denver: their offense is good and they know how to run it. But the Nuggets are a concentrated matchup nightmare for the Blazers and it shows nearly every time they play.
Nowhere was this more evident than when Portland tried to throw a zone defense. The zone is their pacifier, their go-to comfort when nothing else will soothe them. Jokic absolutely destroyed it tonight. The Blazers couldn’t keep him from getting to the middle of the floor (see above). Once there, he was deadly. If the Blazers single-covered him, he was a dribble and a spin away from a good shot. When other defenders so much as looked in his direction, their men dove towards the hoop and Jokic hit them. Failing that, Joker could always collapse the defense and work the ball around for an open three. It was a master class in defeating the specialized “D” by the MVP.
The Blazers got hammered in transition tonight. Denver’s athletic wings were too much for Portland to handle on the run. Every time the Blazers turned over the ball, they were at risk of a dunk on the other end. Denver also scored on the secondary break, as trailers dunked over Portland defenders not equipped to stop them. Even when the Blazers’ spirit was willing—which it wasn’t, always—they just don’t have the kind of raw, athletic defenders to bother anybody once a head of steam gets developed.
The saving grace for Portland was that they gave almost as good as they got. Denver also committed turnovers and Portland’s wings, though not big, were at least speedy enough to convert on the other end.
In the end Denver scored 18 fast break points to Portland’s 13.
Despite their struggles, the Blazers did play patches of good defense in this game. Two characteristics typified those stretches.
- Jusuf Nurkic was in. Without him, Portland’s defense was pretty bad. As soon as Nurkic fouled out in the fourth, Portland had to double-cover Jokic. At that point, they were done.
- Even when Portland couldn’t stop Denver scorers individually, during their better moments they at least prevented the Nuggets from getting the passes they wanted. It was like a cheap hotel shower: either blazing hot or freezing cold without any in-between. When Denver could pass, they were unstoppable. The Blazers seemed to allow them anything they wanted. When Portland inhibited the pass, the Nuggets looked ordinary as mud.
Denver accumulated 31 assists on 47 made buckets, which kind of shows how the game went.
Speaking of, Jamal Murray started slow in this game but ended up destroying the Blazers from the back seat. He hit 9-17 for 25 points and 12 assists. Add Murray to the increasing list of point guards that Portland just can’t seem to stop.
Points in Paint
The Blazers wanted to beat the Nuggets in the paint tonight, or at least stay even. They made a concentrated effort to get the ball inside. Portland was successful, scoring 52 in the paint. Denver was even more so, scoring an incredible 66.
End of the Story
We’ll finish the story where we started it. Denver shot 58.0% from the field and 47.6% from the three-point arc. Those percentages should come with a warning label. No matter how well Portland played on the other end, they weren’t going to overcome them. They had may done it against Minnesota and some other, lesser teams, but it doesn’t work against the good ones.
We’ll keep posting all Christmas weekend. If the relatives get too annoying, come on back for your fix of Blazers material!
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.