Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are headed to Game 7.
On Thursday night, facing elimination on their home court, the Trail Blazers pushed the Denver Nuggets in a way we hadn’t seen in two games. Where before we had seen a dearth of 3-point shooting and rebounding, Portland instead found its way in Game 6. Lillard scored 32 points, going 6-of-13 from beyond the arc, and Rodney Hood added 25 points off the bench including three buckets from deep.
It looked like the Blazers might not recover from traumatic losses in Games 4 and 5, but instead Portland soundly beat Denver, 119-108.
Rebounding, particularly on the offensive end for Portland, has been the story of this series. The Blazers have not been active outside of their big men, and their wings have either been unengaged or caught on the wrong part of the floor.
Guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Seth Curry, and Evan Turner have been in varying places on the hardwood during offensive rebounding chances during the past eight quarters — underneath the basket, stuck in the corner, far above the 3-point line — none of them good places to grab the basketball.
That seemed to change on Thursday thanks in part to the Blazers crashing down just enough to grab more rebounds without giving up transition buckets to the Nuggets, something coach Terry Stotts mentioned he was worried about before the game.
Of big help in this area was second-year man Zach Collins, who had 14 points to go with five blocks, four rebounds, one assist, and one steal. One of Portland’s most recent college players, Collins did what college players do — box out.
In addition to Enes Kanter, who has been doing yeoman’s work with a separated shoulder while fasting for Ramadan, Collins soaked up the Denver big men enough so the Blazers wings could get a shot at some loose balls. The Nuggets is still ended up a +5 in offensive rebounding disparity, but the overall change was huge. In Game 5, Denver had 19 more boards than the Blazers.
In Game 6? One.
Lillard dealt with Denver’s trap slightly better, although he still had five turnovers during the game. More important, Lillard’s shot — which has looked short and shaky as of late — was on point, as the Blazers star was once again hitting deep 3-pointers despite Denver contesting heavily.
Not to be outdone, McCollum continued his excellent run of playoff performances, his demeanor steely and reserved as he again punished the Nuggets with floaters and crazy turnarounds.
Hood, who was the receiver of much derision during last season’s playoffs when he was the new father of twin girls, was the bolster off the bench Portland has needed. The Blazers have not been the same as they were in the regular season, particularly with Evan Turner seemingly still afraid to shoot the basketball. Hood did not have that problem on Thursday, and he added four rebounds to his 25-point total, going 8-of-12 from the floor.
Denver’s starting lineup was again very good, and Nikola Jokic finished with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists. Jokic went 10-of-15 from the field, but the entire Nuggets team only shot 38.4 percent from the floor. Paul Millsap, who had been absolutely lights out up until this point, went just 4-of-15 with 17 points.
Still, it was a close game down the stretch until the Blazers finally sealed it with a 1:19 to go in the fourth quarter. McCollum hit a 24-foot 3-point jumper off a Turner assist to make it a double-digit lead, putting the game out of reach for good. Both McCollum and Lillard didn’t change their expressions much during the game, save for the Lehigh guard’s nod to the Denver bench after his game-sealing shot.
This was more the type of game we should have expected over the course of this series. Games 4 and 5 were outliers in how poorly the Blazers shot and rebounded at times. Thursday’s game at Moda Center was within the reach of both teams throughout, and it felt akin to the first couple of matchups we saw.
Stotts adjusted his rebounding game plan just enough to get the Blazers even, and Portland looked as though they were reinvigorated from a team chemistry point. The Blazers can’t win this series without their bench stepping up. Seemingly, the Nuggets can’t beat the Blazers without shooting an excellent percentage from 3-point range and dominating the glass. No doubt Denver Coach Michael Malone will try to find a way to get the Nuggets to do that very thing again on Sunday in Game 7. And of course, Stotts will try to stop him.
We are headed for another seven-game series in these playoffs, and the battle of Lillard and McCollum vs. Jokic and Murray will get top billing. But as we saw in Game 6, the real story could be about the role players.