It seemed like the answer for the Portland Trail Blazers was fairly straightforward. They needed to find a way to release pressure from the Denver Nuggets’ sideline traps, and get a few offensive rebounds.
On Tuesday night, Denver didn’t allow the visiting Blazers to do either.
The Nuggets jumped out to an early lead, and Portland’s defense wasn’t as sharp as they should have been coming off an embarrassing loss on their home court just a couple of days earlier. A team that was once led by its steely leader, neither Damian Lillard nor his teammates on the Blazers roster appeared as though they had psyched themselves up for Tuesday’s contest back in the Mile High City.
As a result, the Trail Blazers scored 25 points in the first quarter and descended from there. Despite trailing at the half, 65-47, Portland recorded a low of 18 points in the third quarter, the entire time their stars not able to get out of the traps Denver laid for them in Game 4.
That, and Portland just would not box out.
Nikola Jokic, who led all scorers with 25 points, also grabbed 19 rebounds to go along with six assists. Denver out-rebounded the Blazers, 62-44, and again it appeared that Portland simply couldn’t grab anything inside of eight feet. Just as had been the case in the prior games, the Blazers didn’t seem to be able to grab a basketball as much as they would tip it until a Nugget eventually got their hands on it. Much of that was due to Jokic and his stature.
It was impressive stat line for the Denver center, but the real star of the game for the Nuggets was Paul Millsap. The veteran NBA forward has put on a bit of a show against the Blazers in the second round, a renaissance of contested turn around jumpers that has glided gently into the net. Millsap finished with 24 points and eight rebounds, going 2-of-3 from 3-point range.
The play of Jokic and Millsap allowed for the slow start of Jamal Murray, who had 34 points in Game 4. Murray finished with 18 points, nine rebounds, and five assists, but was integral in helping to build the lead the Nuggets eventually used to coast to victory.
Denver beat the Blazers, 124-98, in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead back to Portland on Thursday.
Now the question is what we can we expect from here?
The Nuggets should feel confident in the way they played so far, not just with how their coaching staff has adjusted to Portland but also in the fortitude of their young players. After an uneven series with the San Antonio Spurs in round one, it wasn’t clear if Denver was going to be able to withstand a barrage from an opponent like Portland.
The fact that the Nuggets have come from down 2-1 to take a series lead is a testament to their character
For the Blazers, suddenly the series has become a question of faith. Several key players, including Evan Turner and even Lillard, have had minimal impact recently compared to their regular season. With as much as I’ve watched this team this year, and having seen every minute of this playoff series, it’s not really clear why the Blazers are playing so poorly.
Yes, the Nuggets have confidence. But Portland is also playing remarkably poorly — missing open shots, clanging 3-pointers they would normally make, and getting into volleyball contests with Jokic rather than putting a body on him as a means to stop the rebounding onslaught.
That’s without mentioning that Lillard has looked uncharacteristically timid. He even shot 40 percent from the free-throw line in Game 5. Lillard is one of the best free-throw shooters in the game, but his odd jitters from the charity stripe from the end of Game 4 continued into Tuesday night. Portland’s star point guard scored 22 points but went 2-of-9 from the 3-point line.
The series heads back to Moda Center on the east bank of the Willamette river on Thursday. Michael Malone has made better coaching adaptations then Terry Stotts over the past couple of games, and the Blazers suddenly look like a team that can no longer rely on either of its most valuable assets in Lillard or its bench.
The Nuggets have a chance to close out the series and head to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2008-09. For Portland, Thursday will be a chance to prove to themselves they’re still the team they were all season long.
Or at least, the team they were at the end of April.