The Portland Trail Blazers came close to beating Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night, riding 40 points from Damian Lillard to a near-win. But a huge three from Jamal Murray ended up robbing Portland of their victory celebration, putting Denver ahead 121-120 when the final horn sounded. Nikola Jokic was as impressive as Lillard with 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists.
If you missed the game, you missed a great one. You can read our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from the evening.
Fast and Furious
The Nuggets announced from the get-go that they planned to beat Portland’s defense by not letting it set up. Their preferred attack involved dribblers slicing down the lane. They dared Portland’s perimeter players to stay in front of them. Or, for that matter, shot-blockers to bother them. The Blazers got caught back on their heels a little. Denver scored early and often. Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant drew quick sets of fouls. The game normalized as the action progressed, in part thanks to Portland’s rebounding prowess (see below). Portland did an excellent job in transition—foiling half of their opponent’s plan—but never quite shored up the inside. Denver finished with 6 fast break points, but an enormous 64 in the paint.
You knew Nikola Jokic wasn’t going to put up another triple-single effort against the Blazers like he did in their first meeting in October. But how he put up his numbers proved more important. He played with his back to the basket, spinning, scoring, and drawing fouls against single Portland defenders. Jusuf Nurkic was able to stay with him a little, but nobody else came close. When the Blazers threw a zone to try and protect the inside better, Jokic went to the middle of the floor, higher in the key. From that captain’s perch he could shoot or pass, the classic counter to that defensive scheme. For all the glittery talents in the NBA, watching a guy play classic basketball still holds its charms.
If Jokic was a supertanker in the lane against the Blazers, Jerami Grant was a Coast Guard cutter against Denver. He skipped over waves and wake, cutting everywhere on defense, forcing turnovers, bothering shooters, and making a damn nuisance of himself. He also picked his spots brilliantly on offense, stroking threes and hitting soft jumpers inside. Foul trouble muted his evening modestly, but Portland’s bundle of energy finished with 18 points despite shooting 6-15 from the field, 2-7 from the arc. It looked like fatigue caught up to him in the fourth, but up until then, Grant was gold.
The Blazers were active on help defense, making great reads and hustling to close the floor after Denver bowled them over with an initial run to start the game. It almost seemed like Portland defenders had three arms. Multiple hands were in the vicinity of the ball all night, simply due to activity. It was as energetic of a defensive effort as we’ve seen since the start of the season.
Nowhere did that turn up more than the turnovers the Blazers forced the Nuggets into. Denver ended up with 16. These became a pebble in their shoe as they tried to outscore the Blazers.
If anyone doesn’t value what Josh Hart brings to this team, go back and watch him get busy tonight. He played defense, also scored 12 points on 5-10 shooting, grabbed 3 offensive rebounds, dished 3 assists, and snagged 3 steals. Denver wanted to run against the Blazers. With Hart tipping, tapping, slipping, and sliding, the Nuggets barely got a chance. Hart didn’t produce his usual huge volume of rebounds because of Jokic and Aaron Gordon. But he’s had his struggles against the Nuggets in the past. Tonight was better.
Jusuf Nurkic may have been the second-best center on the floor tonight, but he fought like the dickens. Nurk gave his all defensively, throwing himself willingly against Jokic in every situation. He didn’t try to stop the MVP. Jokic just knew Nurk was there on every play. Denver’s superstar had to make three moves instead of two to get open when Nurk guarded him. Every little bit helps, and you could see the intensity in Nurkic’s eyes tonight.
Nor did Nurk confine himself to Joker Duty. His help defense was as active as his teammates’. He made himself available for layups on the other end and hit 2-3 from the arc on his way to 9-10 shooting, 21 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and only 3 turnovers on a night when he touched the ball a lot.
Like Grant, Nurkic appeared to tire late in the game, but he was also wearing 5 fouls around his neck. He did a good job defending without picking up the 6th.
Damian Lillard somehow scored 40 without totally dominating the offense tonight. He made room for Grant and Nurkic to shine, and set up Anfernee Simons when appropriate, amassing a dozen assists in the process.
When it was go-time, though, Lillard took over and left the Nuggets shaking their collective heads. His biggest strikes came from beyond the arc, where he scored 27 of his 40 by hitting 9 of 17 attempts.
Lillard was the equivalent of the Magician’s Trick payoff. While the Nuggets were busy watching the glittery glove of Portland’s others scorers, he came from out of the blue and knocked them back in their seats. It was a heck of a show.
Anfernee Simons looked like a bicycle with a slipped chain tonight. There was plenty of pedaling, but no going anywhere. Simons shot 3-12, missed all 6 of his attempts from deep, and sinished with just 6 points. He did have 5 assists, but also 4 turnovers and 4 fouls.
The Blazers draw the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first of home back-to-back games on Saturday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.