The Portland Trail Blazers evened their Round 2 matchup with the Nuggets at 1-1 thanks to some clutch performances from their non-Dame players and some unclutch shooting by Denver. Here are the winners and losers from Wednesday’s one-game slate.
Trail Blazers 97, Nuggets 90
Winner: The Other Blazers
Game 2 was Damian Lillard’s worst game of the playoffs: He scored only 14 points, shot 5-for-17 from the field and recorded only four assists. And yet, Portland won. It was a notable result given that Lillard’s 39 points in Game 1 were not enough to get the Blazers the victory. Wednesday night’s bounce-back performance from his surrounding crew was perhaps the best-case scenario for a team that has been defined by Lillard’s heroics this season: a perfect confidence boost powered by some much-needed egalitarian scoring.
CJ McCollum led the way, and even though his 20 points were nothing flashy, they were timely. In the fourth, he hit a floater and two 3s, including a clutch 26-foot stepback 3 with four minutes left that pushed the Blazers’ lead to 10. It wasn’t quite Dame-like, but it was enough. McCollum finished the job, but Enes Kanter was the thorn in Nikola Jokic’s side all night. Kanter wasn’t just effective in his usual ways—post play, rebounding—he also made Jokic work on offense instead of leaving him with an open runway to work his magic. Kanter finished with 15 points and nine boards, he was a plus-6, and he added two steals and two blocks. In retrospect, signing him late in the season could be the difference between the Blazers getting stomped by Denver and making it to the conference finals; he’s been that important.
Things wouldn’t have gone well had the Blazers’ supporting cast replicated its lackluster performance from the first game of this series. Take away Rodney Hood’s 17 on Monday, and the reserves added only nine points. Four combined points from Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless would not have cut it. But in Game 2, Aminu had 11 points; Hood once again shined, adding 15 (plus three blocks!); and though Harkless exited the game in the second quarter with an ankle sprain, the bench scored 32. That Lillard could be afforded an average performance before heading home bodes well for the Blazers, and the Nuggets may look back on Wednesday’s game with deep regret by the time the series ends.
Loser: The Nuggets’ Shooting
From the 4:41 mark in the second quarter through halftime, Jamal Murray took five shots and missed every single one of them. It seemed like the more he shot in Game 2, the louder the clanks off the basket got. It was that kind of game for Murray, who has now conditioned us to expect a flop right after a hit. The Murray Experience is chameleon-like, and it’s also a typically good barometer for how the Nuggets fare as a whole. Wednesday night wasn’t just Murray’s to miss, though. The Denver squad needed Google Maps to find the bottom of the net, except the WiFi didn’t seem to be working.
Denver as a team shot 35 percent from the field and was even worse from 3, taking 29 long-range shots and making only six—Murray himself missed six of his eight from deep. Portland wasn’t much better, shooting 31 percent from deep, and it’s why the game remained close and winnable for the Nuggets (that and the fact that 14 of their 23 offensive rebounds came in the fourth quarter). The Nuggets just could not hit a shot when they needed one—as a team they missed eight shots in the final four minutes. And they didn’t help themselves by missing 10 free throws on the night.
Part of this was an off shooting night, which brought out some boos from the home crowd, but part of it was also the way the Blazers defended. They clearly prioritized limiting Jokic inside as much as possible, swarming and doubling him to force him into tough passes or turnovers (he had two). And when he did find an open shooter, the Blazers tried to close out and contest. The Nuggets could have made them pay, but they didn’t. After scoring 90 points or fewer only four times all season, they’ve now scored 90 twice in these playoffs.
Winner: Nikola Jokic’s Passing Skills
Jokic wasn’t exactly limited by Portland’s defense (he finished with 16 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists), but his performance didn’t pack the same kind of punch as in Game 1. But Jokic did make another freakish pass for us to gawk at. Behold, the nutmeg dish:
This is smooth as hell. Jokic goes from setting the screen to moving toward the rim in one motion, and after getting the ball back, he dribbles only once before figuring out what he wants to do. It all happens in concert, which, for a plodding big man, makes it feel like you’re watching a small miracle. Aminu doesn’t even realize what’s happening until the ball is well through his legs. This is Messi-like wizardry, and it resulted in an and-1 basket from Paul Millsap. Beautiful, and effective—at least for one possession.