In the end, Portland star Damian Lillard was too much.
With unlimited range and the confidence to match it, Lillard hung 45 points on the Nuggets on Thursday evening to snap their two-game winning streak and keep Portland’s shot at the playoffs alive. The Trail Blazers rained in 23 3-pointers in the 125-115 win in Orlando, exposing Denver’s reeling perimeter defense.
In truth, it wasn’t for lack of effort by the Nuggets. On the second night of a back-to-back, Denver was missing starters Paul Millsap (rest), Jamal Murray (hamstring), Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (knee), but the Nuggets’ depth gave the Trail Blazers a monumental scare.
“They’re playing for their playoffs lives with all their starters, and we’ve got guys that have not played a lot of minutes in the NBA, and we’re giving them all they can handle,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I wish we would’ve played with that same intensity in that second quarter, obviously, and there’s a lot to work on in terms of our defense and our 3-point defense, but you can’t ask for guys to play any harder than we did in that second half.”
Paced again by Michael Porter Jr., who had 27 points and 12 rebounds, the lead flipped back and forth throughout a frenetic fourth quarter. Nikola Jokic managed eight points and 13 assists in 24 minutes, but didn’t play in crunch time. Malone said he didn’t even want to play Jokic on Thursday in order to keep him fresh for the postseason.
It was a game the Trail Blazers desperately needed, and one the Nuggets, now 45-24, could afford to drop. Portland wing Gary Trent Jr. aided Lillard’s assault and contributed 27 points with seven 3-pointers of his own.
Denver’s now 1.5 games behind the No. 2 seed Clippers.
Down by as many as 14 points in the third, the Nuggets methodically chipped away at the deficit even as the whistles stacked up against them. Jerami Grant, starting in place of Millsap, was crucial as a cutter and a spot-up shooter. Too often Grant’s value is defined by his defensive versatility, but the Nuggets’ personnel has forced him all over the court.
Asked about his showing after the game, Grant again dedicated his news conference to the memory of Breonna Taylor.
He, Torrey Craig and reserve Mason Plumlee didn’t stop fighting even as Lillard continued connecting from outside. Just like against San Antonio, the team’s energy changed in the third quarter, and the Nuggets managed to cut the margin to five heading into the fourth.
Grant finished with 18 points and Craig added 13.
For the fourth consecutive game, the Nuggets were severely undermanned and were forced to rely on deep reserves, including Bol Bol. The intriguing rookie had several promising moments and logged nine points and five rebounds in 25 minutes.
“I thought we had guys that were getting closer, but obviously that’s not the case,” Malone said before the game “… The bottom line is when you put guys out there, you want them to be confident in going back on that court, to feel good about it. Obviously, we’re just not there right now. I told our players the other night, ‘Let’s not wait for Jamal, Gary and Will. This train has to keep on rolling.’ And they’ll hop on that train when they’re ready, but until then, we have plenty of other bodies and players that can go out there and get the job done.”
Malone didn’t want to concede that his team’s scheduling was a factor, but it was difficult to ignore. Denver was already thin due to injuries, and their third game in four nights (and fourth in six nights) came at an inopportune time.
“Especially when you consider there was a 4 ½ month layoff,” he added. “And that gets back to, do you bring 22 teams out here or do you bring just the 16 playoff teams? Obviously, if it was just 16 teams, the playoff teams, this would’ve been done probably in a more timely manner and maybe not have the back-to-backs.”
The Blazers showed the Nuggets no mercy in the first half. Lillard was tremendous, finishing with 20 first-half points on 6-of-9 from 3-point range. The Nuggets had no answer for Portland’s superstar, whose audacious range extended closer to halfcourt than the 3-point line itself. As a team, the Trail Blazers sunk 11 3-pointers over the first two quarters.