DENVER — What had Damian Lillard so excited wasn’t his 34 points or 13 assists or how he led Portland’s 3-point barrage that sparked the Trail Blazers’ win over the undermanned Denver Nuggets in their playoff opener Saturday night.
It was holding NBA MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic to a single assist. That’s something no opponent had done all year against the Nuggets superstar center who averaged a career-best 8.3 assists this season.
“It was huge,” Lillard said after Portland’s 123-109 victory. “We know when they’re at their best, he’s setting the table, he’s dominating the game as a playmaker and he’s scoring and he’s kind of having his way.
“A guy as good as he is, an MVP candidate — the MVP in my opinion — you know that he’s going to play well,” Lillard added. “You know he’s going to do what he does but you got to try to take something away.”
Jokic matched Lillard’s scoring output, but wasn’t nearly the same facilitator.
“I couldn’t get the other guys involved,” Jokic lamented. “They made me work for it on every possession.”
The Blazers hit 19 of 40 shots from beyond the arc, and Lillard, sporting silver sneakers that were a fitting choice for his sterling performance, had five of them.
Carmelo Anthony Appreciation Post pic.twitter.com/1SaGyoP4Ym
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) May 23, 2021
“To be honest, I think we could’ve shot the ball even better,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
They were plenty good on this night.
“I talked about it quite a lot during the week, can we guard the 3-point line?” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Too many breakdowns.”
CJ McCollum added 21 points and Anthony scored 18 in his first playoff game against the team that drafted him 18 years ago.
Anthony, who forced his way out of Denver a decade ago, learned in the locker room afterward that this marked his first win as a visitor at Ball Arena, which used to be called the Pepsi Center.
“Great time to make it happen,” Anthony said.
Anthony provided an early spark for Portland with 12 points in the first quarter.
“He gave us the boost that we needed,” Stotts said.
And the boos that fueled ’Melo.
“This will always be a special place for me regardless of the boos,” Anthony said.
It was Lillard who took over after halftime, scoring 15 points in the third quarter when he sparked a 32-13 run by the Blazers that turned a nine-point deficit into a 96-86 lead.
“For the last week, this is all I’ve been thinking about,” Lillard said. “We’ve had a whole week to prepare for this and get ready for Game 1. We prepared hard. I wanted to win the game. I want to win the series.”
Jamal Murray returned from L.A., where he’s been rehabbing from his ACL surgery, to cheer on his Nuggets teammates.
“Jamal’s a leader of this team whether he is playing or not,” Malone said. “He can’t score a point for us, but he can provide a lot of other things.”
After shooting baskets before the game, Murray took the mic and addressed the crowd before tip-off.
“Man, I wish I was hooping,” he said as he fired up the crowd at the Nuggets’ first home playoff game since May 12, 2019, when they lost Game 7 of their second-round series to Portland.