Nikola Jokic played a fantastic game for the Denver Nuggets as they battled the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. The MVP center put up 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. The Blazers countered with 40 points and 12 assists from Damian Lillard, 18 from Jerami Grant, and an incredible 21 points on 9-10 shooting from Jusuf Nurkic. But Jamal Murray proved the man of the hour, scoring huge in the fourth period, including a game-winning three-pointer to give Denver a heartburn-inducing 121-120 victory. The loss for Portland ties the season series with Denver, leaving Portland with a 13-12 record overall.
If you missed the action, here’s how the game went.
The Nuggets clearly wanted to push tempo right off the bat. They ran the tip-off for a layup, then sprinted down the floor on their next few possessions, whipping passes through the sky like flying reindeer. They continued to slice through the lane on multiple possessions, daring the Blazers to stay in front of them. Taking it inside as quickly as possible kept Portland’s defenders on their heels and kept the scoreboard ticking for Denver.
The Blazers tried to return the favor, but they had trouble finishing inside when they got free. A three-pointer from Jerami Grant kept the margin slim, then a Grant dunk off a Damian Lillard pass erased it completely. A turnover conversion on the next possession and the Blazers were rolling, finally ready for the ballgame, about halfway through the first period.
Denver kept the pace up, but Grant had his head, hitting another three and converting free throws after getting fouls inside. When he blocked a Nikola Jokic flip in the lane, the heat was on. A couple blinks later, Portland was up 20-13 and Nuggets coach Mike Malone was calling a frustration timeout. The Blazers had taken Denver’s initial jab and returned an uppercut-right cross combo.
As the period continued, the Blazers continued to force turnovers. They also nabbed offensive rebounds, creating even more extra possessions. When Denver set a running game plan, they did not mean “out of momentum”, but there we are.
At the 3:00 mark, Lillard accidentally dribbled off his shoe, causing the ball to spill almost to halfcourt before Drew Eubanks recovered it. It ended up in Grant’s hands with the shot clock running down, the play completely broken. Grant dribbled to the foul line extended, rose, and put a jumper off the front of the rim, which bounced off the backboard and... right into the bucket. That’s how it was going for Portland.
Nikola Jokjc took a personal interest in the final minutes of the period, perhaps sensing the Blazers in breakaway position. He hammered against smaller defenders down low, drawing layups with the and-one. Those points were Denver’s lifeline.
Portland was going to take a three-point lead out of the quarter, but Keon Johnson hit a three against the clock to make it six, 36-30. It was a great period for the Blazers.
Eubanks enjoyed Jokic’s rest period at the start of the second period. Portland’s reserve center felt no compunction about leaving DeAndre Jordan alone. He roamed the floor on help defense, keeping the rim traffic low.
The Blazers needed the help too, because their shots stopped falling. Shaedon Sharpe gave them a couple of bail-out buckets, but Denver finally found the range and caught up. Portland countered with their patented zone defense but Jokic was ready for it this time, heading to the middle of the lane and creating trouble. Between that and threes falling, the Nuggets had evened the score at 48 by the 6:00 mark. One minute—and two sweet plays by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—later, Denver led by 5, 53-48. Portland’s big scorers were silent and every Denver bucket felt like a haymaker.
Jusuf Nurkic helped the Blazers transition back to relevance, scoring with an and-one layup and making a couple of stout defensive stands. When Anfernee Simons scored his first goal of the evening with 3:18 remaining—a fast-break layup—Portland tied the score again at 55.
Simons uncorked at that point, scoring again off a Lillard assist, then setting up Nurkic for a three. With under two minutes remaining, everything looked right again for Portland. Nurkic and Jokic played Dueling Buckets for the balance of the period. Portland emerged with a slim, but hard-fought, 64-63 lead at the half.
Portland came out blazing after intermission. Hart and Nurkic scored inside, which opened up the perimeter for Damian Lillard. A pair of threes later and the Blazers were officially en fuego. Jokic once again played fire hydrant for the Nuggets, assisting on three shots and scoring one of his own in the first four minutes. But threes and layups beat schematic halfcourt play almost every time. The Blazers led by 6, 78-72, with seven minutes remaining.
Jokic came out of the ensuing timeout with a three-point make, leading to a sense of unease. Portland was playing incredibly well, but this guy was like the Terminator, always in their rear-view mirror. Until, that is, Nurkic played Sarah Connor, hitting a three of his own, followed by a halfcourt dunk. When Lillard hit another three two possessions later, all was right with the world again. A Nurkic block of an Aaron Gordon dunk attempt made it even righter. You couldn’t say enough about how hard Nurkic went at it tonight. Because of him, the Blazers led 88-78 with 4:00 left in the third.
Jokic kept pouring it on through the remainder of the period, but Lillard had it dialed in from distance, destroying the Nuggets with the long ball. Lillard would hit 5 threes in the period. Portland led 99-89 heading into the fourth.
The Nuggets thought they might have a chance at an early comeback, but at the 9:40 mark Drew Eubanks hit a three pointer while trailing a halfcourt play. Yes, Drew Eubanks. Yes, a three-pointer. At that point Denver threw their controller to the floor and hit the reset button, swearing the AI is rigged.
They repented of it a few seconds later, as Eubanks’ outburst became the prelude to a Nuggets run. They cut down the lane much as they had in the first period. Then Jamal Murray and Bones Hyland hit threes over a drawn-in defense. They made this run without Jokic on the floor. But the Blazers didn’t have Lillard on the floor either. Meanwhile Simons continued his game-long struggle versus his own shot. Bogged down in the halfcourt, shooting covered jumpers, Portland’s offense suffered. Denver had the score within one, 104-103, with 7:00 remaining. They took the lead 30 seconds later on a jumper from the returned Jokic.
The fight was on. Again.
When it’s fighting time, though, Damian Lillard is bound to show up. On Portland’s next two possessions, Dame drew fouls on a drive, then hit a tough step-back jumper on the baseline. But Jokic struck once more. Back and forth it went. Mostly behind the two superstars, the lead stayed at one, 111-110 for Denver, through the 3:00 mark.
Lillard struck once more on Portland’s next possession. Then, after a Denver miss, Simons found Josh Hart for a layup attempt that Jokic blocked, followed by a quick three from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Denver led by two, which seemed like a billion, given the flow of the game. Then Dame stepped in to hit ANOTHER three, putting Portland back up one, 115-114.
Continuing the trend of everything Anfernee Simons touched tonight being cursed, he and Hart blew a two-on-one fast break, allowing Murray to hit a baseline shot, giving Denver the lead once more, 116-115.
Bucking the trend, Simons drove into the lane and pulled up for a short jumper, making the score 117-116, Portland, with 28 seconds remaining. It was, as they say, nervous time.
After a timeout, Gordon got a tip-in off of a Jokic miss to make it 118-117, Denver.
But then what happened, Blazers fans? You know excatly what happened. Lillard pulled up for a sick, side-step-back three off the dribble with 9 seconds left, giving his team 120 points and a two-point lead.
That would have been enough, but Murray then went at Jerami Grant, faking the drive, getting Grant to step back, then fading back himself for a three-pointer, leaving Denver a 121-120 lead with 0.9 seconds remaining.
Alas, there was no miracle in this 0.9. Denver tipped the inbounds pass and Portland never got a shot off.
Stay tuned for our extended analysis of the game, coming soon!
The Blazers draw the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first of home back-to-back games on Saturday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.