Likely MVP Nikola Jokic, recent 10-day signee Austin Rivers lead Nuggets over Trail Blazers in Game 3

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In the final minute, the Trail Blazers shot better on 3-pointers (4-for-5, 80%) than the Nuggets did on free throws (7-for-10, 70%).

But – as he has all season – Nikola Jokic prevented Denver from collapsing.

Jokic powered past Robert Covington for a putback after Monte Morris missed a pair of free throws with the Nuggets up three and 3.2 seconds left, securing a 120-115 Denver victory in Game 3 Thursday.

The Nuggets – who now lead the first-round series 2-1 – have seemed in danger of slipping as guard injuries mounted. Jamal MurrayWill BartonP.J. Dozier. But Jokic (36 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) continues to provide such a steadying force with his MVP-level play.

Thursday, Jokic got plenty of help from Denver’s substitute starting backcourt.

Austin Rivers – whom the Nuggets signed to a 10-day contract last month – scored 21 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter. He made back-to-back 3-pointers with about four minutes left to give Denver separation:

Older rookie Facundo Campazzo (11 points, eight assists, eight rebounds, two steals and a block) buzzed all over the court.

Campazzo and Rivers even frustrated Damian Lillard at times.

Lillard still scored 37 points, but he didn’t quite control the game as much as that scoring total would suggest. He had a late flurry once the game was nearly out of reach.

The Trail Blazers outscored the Nuggets by nine points in 32 minutes with Jusuf Nurkic (13 points, 13 rebounds and six assists). Portland got outscored by 14 in 16 minutes without him, especially due to a disastrous stretch with Enes Kanter at center. But Nurkic fouled out with more than five minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Which is why Covington was left trying to box out Jokic for the final rebound.

That said, Portland coach Terry Stotts probably should have inserted bigger players like Kanter or Harry Giles in that situation.

Better yet, Nurkic could avoid a couple fouls. And the Nuggets, even with good looks, won’t always make 53% of their 3-pointers (to the Trail Blazers’ 31%).

It wouldn’t take much of a swing for the Trail Blazers to win Game 4 Saturday.

But Denver got the key victory and series lead Thursday.