As we know with any playoff series, what adjustments the losing coach makes heading into the next game is really what makes or breaks any team’s chances to advance. To his credit, Nuggets coach Mike Malone fixated on something Portland wasn’t expecting.
When Portland wings got the ball near the sideline and with the shot clock halved, Malone sent double-teams diagonally across the formation to put extra pressure on Blazers passers. That forced Portland into 14 turnovers compared to Denver’s eight, and created low quality looks at the basket. The Blazers shot 10 fewer field goal attempts then the Nuggets, and Malone’s defensive strategy was a big reason why.
Thus, Denver beat the Blazers, 116-112, in Game 4.
Portland was hampered by foul trouble, particularly with regard to Zach Collins, Moe Harkless, and Enes Kanter. The Blazers were -5 in foul disparity, pushing them to adapt when trying to guard Denver’s most effective players.
Damian Lillard struggled again, particularly from 3-point range, scoring 28 points but with 15 of them coming in the fourth quarter. A 91 percent free-throw shooter this year, Lillard missed two separate free throws in the fourth quarter, including one with 20 seconds to go that would have put Portland down by just two points and with the opportunity to foul.
Alternatively, Denver’s Jamal Murray was ice cold down the stretch, hitting six free throws in the final 13 seconds to seal the game against Portland. Murray finished with 34 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Paul Millsap played masterfully, scoring 21 points with 10 rebounds and two blocks. Nikola Jokic added a triple-double of 24 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
Denver churned out a win against Blazers team that didn’t have an answer for their defensive strategy. But at their core, the Nuggets didn’t instill a lot of confidence in how they played outside of their star players. For all its good play from their top players, Denver didn’t get much out of its supporting cast. Only one bench player scored in double figures, and even though he contributed some big 3-pointers, former Trail Blazer Will Barton shot 28.5 percent from the field.
Portland’s coaching staff won’t lay down, and with things all square heading back to Colorado, we should expect that this series could get even more interesting as the Blazers find solutions to Malone’s defensive counter.
Terry Stotts’ team continues to survive on the good play of injured players, including Kanter and Harkless. That will be something to watch as well, as the amount of punishment their aching soft tissues can take could eventually reach a limit. But really, the Blazers aren’t in that much of a disadvantaged position.
Portland will head back to the drawing board, and likely find they need two things. First, a strategy to counter the sideline and high traps Denver threw at them on Sunday. Second, a tactical shift in how they rebound the ball. The Blazers have been in jumping matches for loose rebounds with the Nuggets all series long, and some late examples in Game 4 suggest that simply boxing out instead of playing volleyball would help them greatly between 2-8 feet.
The Nuggets looked shaky often times during their seven-game series against the San Antonio Spurs. Things have not changed for Denver despite their intestinal fortitude against Portland on Sunday. Murray’s big night and Jokic’s triple-double belie the fact that, save for a missed rebound here or there, and one of the NBA’s best free-throw takers missing a couple late, they could be down 3-1 instead of tied.
The Blazers were almost able to undeservedly steal Game 4. Malone and his staff should be happy their big plan worked, but they’ll be in the gym tomorrow working to make sure the rest of the Nuggets team can contribute more next week.
Game 5 is on Tuesday back in Denver at 7:30 pm.