• If Friday’s game against the Denver Nuggets was a litmus test for the Portland Trail Blazers, a measure of how Damian Lillard and company stack up with another team hoping to break into the Western Conference elite, it’s still somewhat unclear if they passed. The Nuggets beat the Blazers 113-112 at Moda Center, a fifth consecutive victory that brings Michael Malone’s team within half a game of the upstart Los Angeles Clippers for first place in one of the strongest top-to-bottom conferences the NBA has ever seen. Every win matters out West, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be gleaned from a loss.

    Does that apply to Portland after Friday’s game at Moda Center? Yes and no, for reasons positive and negative. The Blazers indeed deserve credit for climbing all the way out of an early 17-point hole. For a long period in the second half, as Portland slowly chipped away at Denver’s lead, it seemed as if the home team would never get closer than two or three possessions from a tie. Every time the Blazers threatened and the Moda Center crowd livened, the Nuggets had an answer to quell that measure of momentum. Even Damian Lillard‘s pull-up 28 footer to pull Portland within three was met by a splashed half-court heave from Trey Lyles as the third-quarter buzzer expired.

    But Portland was undeterred. Terry Stotts opened the fourth quarter with Lillard alongside four reserves, a change from his normal rotation, then brought in C.J. McCollum to briefly spell Lillard before going back to his preferred closing lineup. Behind McCollum’s brilliance and spirited play from Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers were within a point midway through the fourth quarter, then had multiple chances to win in the final minute as the Nuggets struggled inbounding the ball and the officials provided additional drama to a nail-biting game with several questionable calls in crunch time.

    McCollum, in perhaps his finest game of the season, scored 33 points, 15 of which came in the final stanza, on 14-of-21 shooting without connecting on a single three-pointer. He shot 4-of-6 on mid-range jumpers, and a perfect 3-of-3 from floater range. This is a shot Portland will always be happy to get with the game hanging in the balance, but especially when McCollum is cooking with the type of skill, touch, and creativity only a select few others in the league can match.

    There’s a thin line between winning and losing in the NBA, a league where any team is talented enough to best a superior foe. Sometimes, even adequate effort and execution isn’t enough for a favorite to come away with a victory. But if the Blazers were considered the likeliest winners of Friday’s game, that’s only because it was being played in the pacific northwest. Denver, as expected, has simply been better than Portland this season, which makes it all the more confusing why Stotts’ team again required the wakeup call of a sizable halftime deficit to summon the urgency and engagement to win at the highest level.

    “I think we have to be more aggressive and more locked in defensively,” Stotts said. “We can’t feel out the game.”

    The Nuggets scored 68 points in the first half. They shot 52.1 percent from the field, 9-of-15 from beyond the arc, and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line. They racked up 17 assists, carving up Portland with dribble penetration, backdoor cuts, and quick-hitting ball movement. Denver’s offensive rating before intermission was a ridiculous 136.0, its second-highest in any half this season behind only the first 24 minutes of a 45-point win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks.

    Before 2018-19 tipped off, we wondered whether the Blazers would be able to sustain the surprisingly strong defensive play that propelled hem to the three seed in the Western Conference playoffs last season. It’s early yet, but the returns thus far are hardly encouraging. Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, Portland’s 109.4 defensive rating ranks 18th in the league. That substandard number has been steadily rising since the team’s hot start was cooled by a recent six-game road trip, too. The Blazers own the third-worst defensive rating in basketball since the middle of last month. Related: They’re 3-6 over that timeframe, with narrow, high-scoring victories over the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic.

    It’s hardly time to panic. Portland’s defense, in reality, probably sits closer to middle of the pack league-wide than the bottom. Opponents are still being forced into more mid-range jumpers and fewer three-point attempts and shots at the rim than average, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re shooting 37.8 percent from deep against the Blazers, too, a problematically high number that’s ripe for regression given the fickle nature of three-pointers.

    One thing’s for sure, though: The Blazers just aren’t good enough, on either end of the floor, to consistently win games if their intensity and focus on defense leaves much to be desired immediately following the opening tip. That debilitating tendency almost cost them a win against the Orlando Magic earlier this week, and did just that versus the Nuggets on Friday night.

    “We’re going to have to defend a lot better,” McCollum said, “so we don’t have to depend on somebody stepping out of bounds with five seconds left to win a game.”

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