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Nuggets Burn Trail Blazers in Second Half

Things were going well for the Blazers until the tide flipped late in the third quarter.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers led the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets on the road wire-to-wire in the first half in a spirited tussle tonight. Portland didn’t give up that lead until five seconds left in the third quarter, but once it was gone, it never came back.

The Blazers faded in a hurry down the stretch to lose 112-103 to the mighty Nuggets for the second time in three nights.

Two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic did a lot of the damage, putting up 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Jamal Murray, a thorn in Portland’s side with 3-pointers, added 21 points. Forward Peyton Watson gave a big lift from off the bench with 12 points and lots of energy.

The Nuggets’ second-half surge spoiled what was arguably Portland center Deandre Ayton’s best game as a Blazer. The big man registered a season-high 27 points on 13-19 shooting from the field, nine rebounds and five assists, passing the ball well out of the post. Portland guard Anfernee Simons looked lethal at times and extinguishable at others, finishing with 26 points on 8-18 shooting, nine assists and six rebounds. In his first career start, rookie Kris Murray provided solid minutes, doing a little of everything with eight points, two rebounds, two assists, two blocks, one steal and two turnovers.

The Nuggets did almost everything just a little bit better than Portland in the end, enabling them to walk away comfortably with a win.

If you missed any of the action, catch our quarter-by-quarter recap from the astute Timmay! Once you’ve read that, here are the details that defined the contest.

Hot Start Turns to Common Cold

Portland entered tonight’s game without dependable starters Jerami Grant and Malcolm Brogdon in the lineup, inserting Matisse Thybulle and Murray into their slots instead. Even without the veterans, the Blazers started hot, hitting six of their first seven shots to jump on Denver 14-5 early. Ayton played great (more on that in a moment), but other players did well to zip the ball around the perimeter with multiple extra passes. The Blazers attacked closeouts hard but then didn’t get stuck in the lane, either shooting or kicking the ball back out quickly. This made the Denver defense move and defend multiple drives per possession. Portland also hit 3s efficiently, going 6-10 in the first quarter and 4-8 in the second, helping the Blazers shoot 53.5% from the field overall in the first half.

That shotmaking helped Portland keep Denver’s early surges at bay, even as the Nuggets shot just shy of 50% in the first half. The Blazers even pushed ahead 84-75 in the back half of the third. Then the shotmaking evaporated and so did Portland’s protective barrier. The Blazers’ offense didn’t hum quite as smoothly deeper into the game, players missed some important chances at the rim and the 3-point shot died at the scene. Portland went 1-13 from deep, while shooting 38.1% overall in the second half. Meanwhile, Denver maintained its form. That’s how the Nuggets flipped the game on a 16-0 run to go ahead 91-86 and never look back.

With a Name like DominAyton, He has to be Good!

I think I’ve said to myself several times over the past two weeks, this was probably Ayton’s best game. Taking that into account, I swear to you it was probably this one. The season-high point total was great, but how he got there was better. He wasn’t just settling for midrange jumper after midrange jumper, he made firm post moves for hook shots, bumped Jokic off his spot for a physical drive, tipped in his own miss, ran the lane as a lob threat, and, as a garnish, sprinkled in his signature 15-footer.

Maybe most impressive, Portland used Ayton as an offensive hub, especially in his opening 11-minute shift. The team consistently fed Ayton the ball in the post early in possessions, and Ayton consistently made the right reads. He comfortably slung the ball out to shooters, hit Murray on a backdoor cut for two points on one occasion, or attacked his matchup with good results. He also deserves credit for battling on the boards agianst Jokic throughout the game.

This was DominAyton in all its glory.

Rookie Check

As mentioned above, Murray played well in his first NBA start. He’s beginning to fulfill that draft-day promise as a smart utility player. While the rook went 0-2 on 3s, he was efficient from the paint and on the drive. Murray opened the game with a pick-six layup, got that backdoor layup from Ayton, then he had two physical drives in the second half where he got all the way into the paint with defenders around him to finish off glass. Murray shot 4-7 from the field for eight points, but he also impacted the game with some impressive hustle plays, including two blocks and a great dive on the floor to save a possession. Earlier, I mentioned the Blazers did a good job driving and keeping the ball moving if the shot wasn’t there. Murray is one of the best at this skill, and he does a great job of staying in motion after the pass, too.

Now we come to Scoot Henderson. This was an interesting Scoot game. If you peaked at the shooting numbers alone, you might raise your eyebrows and get flashbacks to Scoot’s challenging opening weeks as a pro. Despite a challenging 3-16 outing from the field though, Henderson still played a much better, more effective game than those early performances. Henderson went 1-6 from the floor in the first half, but he drew contact on drives three times to go 6-6 on free throws. Scoot’s 3-ball was serviceable (2-6 on 3s for the game) and he finished the night with nine assists and eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end. Scoot had a few not-so-great turnovers, but the glaring issue was his finishing at the rim. A theme this season, several times Scoot got all the way to the cup, but failed to convert. In the second half, Henderson didn’t get to the free throw line again to off set some of those finishing issues.

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The Blazers get three days off before facing the Detroit Pistons at home on Thursday night. Tipoff is scheduled for a little after 7 p.m. PST. That day also happens to be the NBA Trade Deadline.