The Portland Trail Blazers tried to keep pace with the high-speed freight train that is the Denver Nuggets Tuesday night, maintaining contact for roughly three quarters before being left in the dust 122-113.
Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic was the Denver conductor, unleashing an ultra-efficient 36-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. He got lots of help from his teammates, too, including 23 points from Michael Porter Jr.
Damian Lillard powered Portland’s engine, dropping 44 points and 8 assists, but received less help than his All-Star counterpart. Eventually, Dame and the Blazers ran out of gas and fell to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference on a night it was clear why Denver is one of the NBA’s best teams.
If you missed any of the action, read our quarter-by-quarter instant recap from Joe Moore.
Now, here are seven observations from the loss.
The Runnin’ N’ Gunnin’ Nuggets
Holy moly, Denver is a phenomenal offensive team. The Nuggets just have so many weapons that can do damage. Jamal Murray is a near All-Star point guard. Michael Porter Jr. is one of the League’s premier sharpshooters with an unguardable release. Aaron Gordon is playing like an All-Star this season and a force to deal with down low. They have reliable role players. Then of course, Jokic is the straw that stirs the drink together. Tonight, he had an absurd stat line: 36 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists while shooting 13-14 from the field. That’s right, he only missed one shot, and it came in the third quarter when he jacked up a fadeaway 3-pointer to beat the shot-clock. He seemingly got anything he wanted on the floor, playing at his signature, comfortable speed. Floaters inside the paint. Decision-making off the role to find open teammates. Popping outside for a triple. Banging with Jusuf Nurkic to get his shot in the post. It all appeared easy. Denver rode that dynamite performance from Jokic and a virtually weakness-free offense to a 50 percent night from the field, including 34.4 percent shooting from deep and 52 points in the paint. While Jokic was able to be effective in the halfcourt, Denver still burned Portland on the fastbreak. Surprisingly enough that damage came off Portland misses, not turnovers. Denver clearly made an emphasis during pregame to push off missed field goals, throwing long outlets for gimmes or 2-on-1 scenarios. If they were playing at the local Y, somebody might’ve accused the Nuggets of cherrypicking, but in the NBA it was heady play. According to Blazers statistical guru Cory Jez, Denver pushed the ball in transition on 50 percent of Portland misses in the first half. It led to 14 transition points in the first half and a 16-10 advantage for the game. Whenever the game pushed a frenetic pace, it favored Denver.
Damian Lillard Tries to Keep Pace
It was clear early on that Portland’s defense wasn’t going to stop Denver, so Portland’s only hope was its offense to play lights-out. For awhile, Portland looked hot enough to stay in the game, trailing by only three after the first quarter and six after the second. That was largely due to the play of Damian Lillard. Coming into the game on a streak of five games with over 30 points, Lillard kept his run going with 44 points on 12-20 shooting (6-12 3PT). Outside of some nice production from Jerami Grant, particularly in the third quarter, Lillard had to do almost all the heavy-lifting for Portland and his teammates failed to capitalize on some golden open looks. Up until the fourth quarter, Portland’s offense was still humming along quite well (45.8 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from deep for the game), but every miss felt like a backbreaker due to the pressure from Denver. The Nuggets did everything just a little bit better: field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throws, points in the paint, fastbreak points. Denver was the clear winner of the shootout in almost every category.
Third Quarter Turnovers
In the first half, Portland did a great job of taking care of the ball, only giving up four turnovers. (Although, that success was partially mooted by how well Denver managed to push the ball anyway.). Then in the third quarter, the same ‘ole Portland Turnovers came out to play. The Blazers turned the ball over six times in the third quarter alone on their way to 13 for the game. It was enough to throw the fine-tuned offense out of rhythm and allow Denver to gain enough separation to take control. It was the nature of the turnovers that was again so frustrating. Many were unforced errors, including one on the first offensive possession of the period and another coming out of a timeout. It’s no wonder Denver outscored Portland 28-22 for the quarter and took a 101-89 lead into the fourth.
The Wheels Fall Off in the Fourth
After the cracks in the armor began to show in the third quarter, the Blazers’ chances crumbled in the final frame. Portland’s offense stagnated and stuttered at times in the third quarter. In the fourth, it just disappeared, giving Portland no hope of mounting a comeback. Down 106-99 with 7:51 remaining, Portland didn’t score over the next 4:17 of game-time. The stretch included five consecutive missed 3-pointers as Portland tried to get it all back at once and allowed Denver to go on a game-sealing 13-0 run.
Simons Says “Oof”
This was not one of Anfernee Simons’ finer games as a Blazer. Of course, there were some nice moments. A fadeaway here. A blazing fast drive for a slam there. A step-back triple over there. One time, he even patiently probed the pick-and-roll and dished off for a nice assist. But all in all, Simons had a rough night. His stat line: 5-15 from the field (2-10 3PT) for 14 points, 2 assists, 2 rebounds and 4 turnovers. He looked somewhat uncomfortable attacking with the ball in his hands, unsure of how to go at his defender once he got his desired target on the switch. There were a number of times he dribbled the ball at the top of the 3-point line, waiting to make his move, while the rest of the offense sat around him. He also got stripped multiple times and missed a number of WIDE open looks from deep that Portland desperately needed and he normally swishes. The game also included some difficult plays to close the first and third quarter for Simons. On both plays, as he dribbled out the clock to get the final shot, the defensive pressure came and he threw late grenades for Shaedon Sharpe to deal with at the 3-point line. Tuesday was one of those challenging sections in the learning curve for Simons.
On the flip side, Sharpe had one of his most steady performances of the season, giving Portland a boost off the bench. He started his night off with a highlight alley oop jam and rode that momentum to 13 points on 5-7 shooting (2-4 3PT). Seven of those points came in the first half and it showed how essential his production is off the bench when his shot is falling. With Sharpe scoring and the reinforcements of Nassir Little and Gary Payton II in the mix, the bench unit looked much more energetic and fluid than it has for stretches this season. The bench finished with a non-flashy 27 points, assisted by some garbage-time minutes. But during the first half when the game was still close, the bench cut into Denver’s lead rather than falling further behind.
After a hot streak of solid games, Nurk struggled against his former team, finishing with 6 points, 10 rebounds and 4 turnovers. Jokic got the best of Nurkic, though, to be fair, the two-time defending MVP is a tough cover for anybody. After Nurkic’s 3-point shot was making headlines in Dallas over the weekend, he hit his first attempt tonight before finishing 1-4 from deep. Another note about Nurkic’s impact: The second unit was really struggling to rebound at times without Nurkic on the floor. Denver out-rebounded Portland 42-35 for the game, including 11-5 on the offensive glass. Again, when going up against a juggernaut on offense like Denver, every extra opportunity given is crucial.
The Blazers are back in action Thursday, Jan. 19 at 7:00 p.m. PT when they kick off a six-game home stand with a matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.