The second-round series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers doesn’t come larded with the same sort of narrative drama as the other matchups in the 2019 NBA conference semifinals. Golden State–Houston offers a rematch of last postseason’s most compelling war of attrition, but it’s also about Kevin Durant’s big decision and the potential end of the Warriors as we know them. Milwaukee-Boston featured Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks making it crystal clear just how terrifying they are, but it was also about how Kyrie Irving’s impending choice could topple the house of cards Danny Ainge has spent years building. More than anything besides the health of Joel Embiid, Toronto-Philadelphia is a nightly referendum on whether or not Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler should re-up with their respective teams or look for a new long-term home.
There are no megawatt superstar free-agents-to-be at the center of Denver-Portland. Which, honestly, has been kind of refreshing. Sometimes, it’s pretty sweet to get to just watch two good teams staffed by interesting players play their preferred entertaining styles of basketball really well. (Imagine that!)
Blazers-Nuggets has been a freaking fun watch, and in Thursday’s Game 6, Portland ensured we’d get one more game of it, scoring a 119-108 win to force a Game 7 back in Colorado on Sunday. The winner moves on to the Western Conference finals to take on the survivor of Warriors-Rockets. The loser will rue a missed opportunity to return to the NBA’s final four, a round the Nuggets haven’t reached in a decade and the Blazers haven’t seen since all the way back in 2000.
Let’s run through the five most notable things about the game that set the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Mother’s Day, starting with the Blazers backcourt bringing it in a big way ...
Dame and CJ, Making Their Stand
The notion that the Blazers will need to split up Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum if they want to get past being “pretty good” and build a roster capable of competing for a championship has become one of the more well-worn takes in the NBA commentariat. (Including, um, here.) You’ve heard the arguments: They’re too small, too duplicative, too expensive, too light on postseason achievement. On Thursday, though, they were something else: too good.
With their backs against the wall, Portland’s leaders stepped up. The Nuggets had largely held Lillard in check in this series, limiting the superstar who waved bye-bye to the Thunder to an average of 23 points on 39.3 percent shooting from the field and a dismal 21.9 percent mark from 3-point land since Game 1. On Thursday, though, Dame shook loose, finishing with a game-high 32 points on 11-for-23 shooting with six 3s in 13 tries. McCollum held up his end, too, pouring in 30 on 12-for-24 shooting in 42 minutes of turnover-free work.
Lillard exploded in the third quarter, beating Denver’s pick-and-roll coverage every way he could: splitting traps to find space for stepback midrange jumpers, playing hide-and-seek behind screens from Enes Kanter and Zach Collins before bombing away, calling for picks near the half-court line to put retreating center Nikola Jokic in no-man’s-land on the contest, stringing out hedging defenders and driving past them to the cup. It was a masterful performance. McCollum, for his part, was the linchpin of the reserve-heavy lineups that sparked an early second quarter comeback and an early fourth quarter run, handling the ball and creating the good looks that helped the Blazers stay even with Lillard on the sideline for a rest.
They both helped keep the Nuggets at arm’s length late in the fourth quarter with some ludicrous shot-making:
Lillard, who emerged as one of the brightest stars of this postseason against Oklahoma City, scored 17 in the third quarter to seize control of the game. McCollum, who has been perhaps the most unsung hero of the 2019 playoffs to date, rang up 11 in the fourth to make sure the Blazers kept it. For all we’ve heard over the years about what this tandem can’t do in the biggest moments of the season, it was pretty cool to see them remind us all of what they can do to stave off elimination and get Portland within one road win of its first conference finals berth in nearly 20 years.
… With a Little Help From Their Friends
Once you get past questions about the ceiling of the Lillard-McCollum partnership, the other knock on Portland has long been that it’s essentially a two-man operation. And yet, Thursday’s win owed nearly as much to the supporting cast as to the star guards themselves.
Once an emerging object of offensive interest in Utah, Rodney Hood lost his luster last season after he slumped for the Jazz, got shipped to the Cavaliers at the trade deadline, and then proceeded to do very, very little to help propel LeBron James to his eighth straight NBA Finals. (In fairness, having twins in the middle of the first round of the playoffs would probably throw most of us off quite a bit.) But another midseason move this February sent him to Portland, and after working his way into Terry Stotts’s reserve rotation, Hood began a very unlikely reputation reclamation project when he came out of the bullpen to save the Blazers’ bacon in last week’s epic quadruple-overtime Game 3. He continued the effort in Game 6, knocking Denver on its heels with 25 points on 8-for-12 shooting in 31 minutes.
At 6-foot-8 and 206 pounds with a smooth jumper and soft touch inside, Hood has the size and skills to be a matchup nightmare for a Nuggets team stocked with smaller wings. He played a vital role in Portland’s clear attempt to attack Denver barometer Jamal Murray on defense in the post, and proved a much more potent option to do so than the bigger but less offensively gifted Maurice Harkless. Hood also did a number on Nuggets spark plug and former Blazers folk hero Will Barton—Portland scored 30 points on the 22 possessions on which Barton checked Hood in Game 6, according to NBA.com/Stats—while holding his own defensively on the wing. Three months ago, Hood looked like little more than an expiring contract on a dead-end Cavs team. Now, thanks to steadily increasing confidence in his ability to punish mismatches and shoot from the perimeter, the 26-year-old has found himself as perhaps the third-most-important player on a team that’s one win away from the Western Conference finals.
Hood wasn’t the only Blazers reserve to come up huge in Game 6. Second-year center Zach Collins showed what makes him such an intriguing prospect for Portland’s future, protecting the rim (five shots blocked, many others altered) and racking up 14 points on 4-for-8 shooting. Collins looked so good going toe-to-toe with Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, and Mason Plumlee that Stotts had no choice but to stick with the 21-year-old; he played the entire fourth quarter, and his 28 minutes and 43 seconds of playing time represent the most he’s logged since January of last season.
Joining Collins in going the full final 12 minutes of Game 6: Evan Turner. The versatile swingman catches a lot of stick in some circles for production that’s not exactly commensurate with the four-year, $70 million contract he giddily signed in the benighted free-agent summer of 2016. But while Turner went scoreless in Game 6, and in fact didn’t even attempt a shot, he had his best game of the playoffs. After getting muscled up in the post by the bigger Millsap over the past few games, Turner met the challenge on Thursday, holding Millsap to 2-for-7 shooting on the 24 possessions on which the two were matched up.
Turner also chipped in on the glass, grabbing seven defensive rebounds—only Enes Kanter had more among Blazers—to help limit the damage the bulldozing Nuggets could do on the offensive boards. And with McCollum, Hood, and Lillard cooking, Turner slid into a comfortable role as a facilitator and distributor, dishing seven assists with only one turnover in 19 minutes:
The formula for a Blazers win is typically Lillard and McCollum handling the bulk of the scoring and playmaking burden, and then somebody else—usually Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu—making at least some of the looks that defenses grant them. With Harkless and Aminu continuing to struggle with their shots in this series—they’re a combined 7-for-30 from deep against Denver—Portland needed others to pitch in to survive. Hood, Collins, and Turner obliged.
Nikola Jokic Remains Unreal
I don’t really have a whole spiel here; even if I did, there’s no way I could say it any better than Tyler Parker did on Thursday. I just can’t get enough of watching Jokic galumph his way into annihilating all who stand before him. Objects that large moving at such a deliberate pace should not be able to get wherever they want and do whatever they’d like. And yet:
Twenty-nine points on 10-for-15 shooting, 12 rebounds, eight assists, and four turnovers for the Serbian revelation, who teamed with Murray and Gary Harris—all of whom played the full first quarter—to stake the Nuggets to an early 10-point lead only to watch the bulk of it go away once he took a seat on the bench. (More on that in a minute.) Jokic has been the best player in this series, and the best non-Durant player in the entire Western side of the bracket, and now he’ll face the second Game 7 of his first NBA postseason. He struggled in the first one, going 9-for-26 in a game that Denver survived thanks in large part to some curious clock management by San Antonio, but we know he’s capable of a hell of a lot more than that in a potential elimination game.
What Happened to the Nuggets Bench?
Denver’s reserves—who all season long constituted perhaps the league’s best second unit—buckled in a big way. (Although, to be fair, the non-Jokic starters stumbled, too; Murray, Millsap, and Harris shot a combined 10-for-36 after the first quarter.) Barton scored seven points, at least, but needed eight shots to do so and routinely got torched on defense; Portland outscored Denver by 25 points in his 26 minutes of floor time. Plumlee’s brutal postseason continued, with Collins outshining him at every turn and Jokic now seeming like a clearly superior defensive option, which makes you wonder what sort of value the six-year vet even provides at this point.
Malik Beasley, a steady 3-and-D performer all season, managed to get up eight shots in 10 minutes of playing time—and miss all of them. Monte Morris, one of the very best backup point guards in the NBA this season, has seemed lost in a fog since the late stages of the Spurs series; coach Michael Malone yanked him after less than three minutes on Thursday, reportedly marking the first time this season he’s been benched for poor play, and didn’t reinsert him for his typical stint at the start of the fourth quarter, instead preferring to stick with Murray, who wound up logging a game-high 45 minutes.
Quality depth was a big part of the Nuggets’ push to 54 wins and the West’s no. 2 seed. On a team with only one All-Star, you need all hands on deck to get where you want to go. The end of the second round of the playoffs would seem to be a particularly dicey time for dudes to start throwing themselves overboard.
Small-Ball Wins Big
Losing Jusuf Nurkic weeks before the start of the playoffs was supposed to submarine these Blazers, removing arguably their second-best player, most important interior defender, and sturdiest big man from the rotation ahead of battles against behemoths like Jokic. In Game 6, though, Portland turned that weakness—not enough reliable size, with only Kanter (just 2-for-9 from the floor as he struggles through a separated shoulder) and sophomore Collins on the menu—into a strength.
Third-choice center Meyers Leonard caught a DNP-CD, as Stotts instead chose to lean on four-small lineups to get his best players on the floor as often as he could. He turned to a lineup of Collins, Turner at power forward, Hood, McCollum, and Seth Curry—a group that didn’t play a single possession together during the regular season, according to Cleaning the Glass—that could spread the floor with three dangerous shooters, a credible-enough stretch big, and Turner, whose career kicked into overdrive back in Boston when Brad Stevens started playing him as a second-unit point forward. It worked, the unit outscoring the Nuggets by 13 points in 12 minutes of floor time; another four-out, small-ball group—Kanter-Hood-McCollum-Curry-Lillard—was a plus-seven in two minutes.
Those lineups are vulnerable on the defensive end. In a Game 7, you’d kind of understand if Stotts decided to skew a little more conservative, ride the guys (Harkless, Aminu) he thinks might be able to get stops, and just hope that they start making more of the wide-open looks that Dame and CJ create for them.
Then again, Portland’s not stopping the Nuggets anyway: Denver has scored 115.2 points per 100 possessions against the Blazers, far and away the top offensive efficiency mark of any team in Round 2. The Blazers are better on defense overall than they used to be, but they’re still a team heavily reliant on its offense, the fluid motion scheme installed by its very good head coach, and the shot creation and playmaking talent of its cornerstone guards. Staring down elimination in Game 6, Stotts decided to double down on shooting and playmaking, and it paid off. With a spot in the conference finals on the line, maybe it’d be a wise idea for him to play the same hand, and to force Malone, Jokic, and the rest of the Nuggets to prove they can beat it.