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7 Take-Aways from the Trail Blazers’ Hard Fight Against the Nuggets

Portland’s guards looked good. Anything else?

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Even in the midst of their best week of the 2023-24 regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers would not be expected to beat the NBA Champion Denver Nuggets. Denver is winning trophies. Portland is winning approximately 33% of their games. These two things are not the same.

Instead, Friday night’s matchup answered a basic question: What do the growing, recently-surging Blazers looked like when facing excellence? As it turns out, ok...maybe? But not really serious. Portland fell behind early, got back into the fray during a furious second period, then watched Denver toy with them the rest of the evening.

The distance between Portland and good is vast. The distance between this franchise and serious contention is immeasurable on a scale only future lottery picks can bridge.

Despite the 120-108 loss, we can still take plenty of things from the game. The Nuggets were like one of those medical tests where they flood your insides with dye and then scan you to light up all the problem points. Portland had plenty of flaws, but a couple bright spots gleamed through.

If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are the other things that mattered.

Speed Kills

Though they were the more veteran squad, the Nuggets generally moved faster than the Blazers. They beat Portland in transition early, then slowed the game down to preserve their lead. They probably could have run all night had they wanted to.

This continues to be a sore spot for the Blazers. Portland is not only younger than most opponents, but smaller. Logically, they should be quicker. It doesn’t work out that way most nights.

The lone exception came in a glorious second quarter in which the Blazers were able to quick-drive into the lane repeatedly. Scoot Henderson flourished in that environment and Portland closed the scoreboard gap heroically. But they couldn’t keep it up.

How bad was it? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was beating the Blazers down the floor and dunking. “Dunking” and “KCP” belong in the same sentence like “Deep-Fried Bacon” and “Heart-Healthy Diet”. But here we are.

Back to Basics

The story wasn’t always better in the halfcourt. Denver got easy shots off of basic pick-and-roll sets repeatedly. If the Blazers didn’t switch, they inevitably found a player out of position. If they did, they had to make do with guards trying to defend Nikola Jokic. They switched a LOT. Disastrously.

It’s not like the Nuggets ran complex plays where Portland adjusted, then rotated, only to find their weakest defender isolated against the ball. The primary actors in each Denver set usually found a great opportunity. If not, they were one kick-out from an open three. Rotations, either to the ball or to the arc, were slow as molasses in a freezer.

The problem for Portland wasn’t a particular defender. It was the defense itself. Denver shot 50.5% from the field tonight, another generous gift from Portland to an opponent.

Perfect Passing

Nowhere did Portland’s defensive issues show as clearly as in the “Assists Allowed” stat. Denver tallied 34 assists on 46 made field goals. Denver trades on elegant offense anyway, but the Blazers let them hone it to fine-pointed excellence.

Making a Point

Not everything was painful for Portland. Their twin point guards—Malcolm Brogdon and Scoot Henderson—acquitted themselves quite well. Brogdon opened the proceedings, driving right into the teeth of Denver’s defense, absorbing contact, and scoring. Henderson said, “Wait. That’s allowed?” He was off to the races. Denver just doesn’t handle tough, persistent driving well.

Brogdon and Henderson kept the Blazers in contact against an opponent who could have destroyed them easily. They played tough, physical offense when they just as easily could have backed down and called it a night.

Henderson led the Blazers with 30 points on 8-15 shooting, 3-7 from the arc, and an impressive 11-12 from the foul line. Driving pays dividends. Brogdon added 11 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists.

The Flamethrower

Anfernee Simons didn’t bring it in the first half tonight, but holy cow, he torched the Nuggets in the third period. His step-back threes and pull-up J’s were glorious. He hit six field goals, three of them from distance, in the third alone on his way to 29 points on 11-23 shooting, 4-10 from the arc.

That said, the Blazers have a recurring issue. Whenever an opponent locks down on Ant, he stalls in isolation. Both his, and the team’s, scoring stops until the pressure gets released or the offense goes in another direction. Squeezing Simons remains the #1 most bankable way to stop the Blazers. It works most every time.

The Joker

You already know how good Nikola Jokic is, but he was playing some next-level chess in this one. Let’s be frank. He could have scored 40 without thinking. Instead, he took only —- shots total. He wasn’t passive at all. Rather, he was choosing all the fun, fancy ways to pick apart the Blazers.

An example: Fairly early in the third period. Jokic had a mismatch against Brogdon off of a switch. He had about a foot in height and a couple light years in talent over the smaller defender. Jokic could have scored in any of a half-dozen ways. Instead he passed the ball back to Jamal Murray, the other player in the two-man set that earned the mismatch in the first place. Murray took a jab step, drawing Brogdon and Jabari Walker to him trying to stop the drive. As Murray stepped back for a three, Jokic rolled towards the bucket. Murray missed the double-covered shot, but Jokic grabbed an unopposed rebound, gathered himself, then put the ball off the backboard for an easy layup. Not satisfied with beating single-coverage, Joker insisted on scoring against no coverage. The only thing that would have foiled his plan was Murray actually hitting the three...a consolation prize with a 150% payout. Majestic.

Jokic had a triple-double with 27 points, 23 rebounds, and 12 assists while shooting 11-16 from the floor.

I don’t even know how to describe The Joker, except to say that one suspects Denver could have fielded him and four traffic cones and still given the Blazers a run for it tonight.

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Boxscore

The Blazers will face these same Nuggets at 5:30 PM, Pacific on Sunday. Let’s see if they change their defensive approach.