The Blazers 2021 playoff run ended Thursday night. After a gut-wrenching double overtime game five just a few days ago, the Blazers fell to the Nuggets in the last home stand of the season at the Moda Center.
Coming on the heels of Lillard’s historic playoff performance in game five, this was not the playoff game with the deciding factors that one might expect. It wasn’t decided by rebounds or free throws or by one team being the aggressor. Rebounding and free throws were not the differences in the game. If you’re familiar with the vintage Rasheed Wallace media bite: “both teams played hard,” just know they both certainly did in this game.
Let’s rewind to the Blazer turnover after which Denver guard Monte Morris drove aggressively to the rim. Blazer guard Anfernee Simons refused to give up anything at the basket. He somehow managed to get his hands on the ball and remain intertwined with the ball thereby forcing a jump ball. None of these teams was going to take a foot off the gas or lose this game from a lackluster display of effort. The deciding game of the first round western conference series came down to three key factors: end of quarters, ball movement/player movement and the battle between the two big men: Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.
End of Quarters
This game was largely decided by swings in momentum and scoring as both teams competed to close quarters efficiently. In the first half both teams shot 55% and shot three pointers at a high clip. The pivotal end to the first half was worthy of a highlight reel. After trailing for most of the first half, the Nuggets scored in the paint after a bevy of offensive rebounds. However, they couldn’t help leaving a few seconds left on the clock. Lillard makes a move reminiscent of game five’s one-man offensive juggernaut and reminds us we’re still on “dame time “ . His three pointer gives the Blazers a seven point lead going in to halftime.
The Blazers continued their hot shooting and led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter. Determined to secure the last points of the quarter, Lillard attacks the basket and lays it up. Then before the hometown fans have a chance to catch their breaths, they see the ball fly to the opposite wing of the court. The third quarter ended with backup guard Monte Morris’ offbalance three pointer he shoots while he is still running towards the basket as the buzzer sounds. It was gutwrenching after watching Lillard complete an acrobatic three point play just seconds earlier. Morris’ three pointer tied the game going to the fourth quarter. More than just affecting the score, it affected the momentum. The unexpected and sudden turn of events took some of the air out of the raucous Portland crowd. Nothing felt secure as the Blazers no longer led.
The crucial moments of the fourth quarter weren’t as highly contested as Blazer fans would like. As the end of the game approached, it was no longer close. The Nuggets were nothing short of poised and methodical; efficient offense translated into buckets. Denver drove to the basket more in the fourth quarter. Their outside shots were also connecting. The Blazers chose to shoot outside shots early in the shot clock, opting to play an ill-timed version of isolation ball on their home floor. This seldom resulted in attacking the basket. Their hot shooting fizzled out and, Damian Lillard, their number one scoring option was shooting 0/6.
It seemed like it didn’t even matter who was wearing a Denver jersey. Players who get limited playing time like Jamychal Green had two big offensive rebounds when the game was on the line. At the end of the fourth quarter, the Blazers gave up a huge offensive rebound. With only a minute to go, the Denver offense turned it into a three pointer.
Ball and Player Movement
Both teams shot well for most of the game and were shooting at nearly identical percentages at the end of the first half. But the Blazers hit a cold spell at the most inopportune time, midway through the third, while the Nuggets were still shooting at a high level. Some of this was due to the Nuggets getting easier shots through their offensive sets. Their offense benefited from constant flow. On many offensive possessions the Blazers do not see the ball switch sides of the court. Denver guard Austin Rivers hit a very ill-timed three pointer if you are a Blazers fan. Many different players for the Nuggets hit three point shots. This includes backup point guard Monte Morris, who played like a starter with his contribution of 22 points.
For most of the game, the Nuggets were more aggressive going to the basket. Their prolific playmaker (and potential league MVP) Nikola Jokic scored in a variety of ways. He faced up at the free throw line and drove to the basket, he scored in the post, he scored at the three point line and at the free throw line. Pivotally, he was the recipient of a few calls that sent Nurkic to the bench in foul trouble.
Denver’s players constantly move because their superstar is such a willing passer from any angle of the court. They all trust that if they’re open they will get the opportunity to score. On the other side, Lillard had 5 turnovers and some of those were a result of isolation dribbling before the ball made its way to another player. Denver was playing inside out with Jokic alternating between cutting to the basket himself or delivering assists. Penetration led to wing players getting quality outside shots. Player movement extends to defense too.
Denver got many of its layups in the fourth quarter thanks to a defense that got its hands on loose balls. Helmed by Jokic as a very willing facilitator, their fluid offensive schemes benefit players cutting and receiving passes. Coach Malone made spacing a point of emphasis for his offense and it led to high-energy offensive execution. The Nuggets played with flow and pace with iso ball nowhere to be seen. Communication and rotation on defense was a weakness of this year’s Blazers team that the Nuggets exploited. The Nuggets amassed 28 assists to the Blazers 24.
Battle of the Big Men
Nurkic was in serious foul trouble most of the game. During a run in the third quarter Nurkic picked up a foul and the Nuggets profited from a forthcoming barrage of turnovers. After three free throws the momentum shift resulted in a 7-0 Nuggets run and Nurkic resting on the bench.
Even when he was playing, Nurkic seemed like more of an outsider than even self-proclaimed “outsider” Danny Marang of the Trail Blazers Outsiders TV broadcast. Nurkic struggled to be a part of the offensive flow; the Blazers could not get him going. This may have affected his focus, but for whatever reason he was not mentally dialed in. He committed a costly turnover under his team’s own basket in the pivotal fourth quarter. In the first half. he threw an errant pass that Lillard couldn’t retrieve and Porter Jr. returned for a dunk.
After the game Lillard admitted that he shared most people’s opinion that Jokic should be MVP this year. Jokic is involved in his offense in every way imaginable. He takes it upon himself to be the consummate team player: he goes to the basket, shoots or facilitates depending on how he reads the play. Nurkic? On many possessions, Nurkic seems like an afterthought.