April 10, 2018, 1:04 am
Glass half full: It would be really, really hard for the Portland Trail Blazers to play any worse offensively – in the regular season, at least.
Portland lost its fourth straight game on Monday night, falling 88-82 to the Denver Nuggets in a rugged, ugly, hard-fought game that had major playoff implications for both teams. Nikola Jokic kept the Nuggets’ postseason hopes alive with 15 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists, his second straight triple-double. Jusuf Nurkic was even more dominant than his former running mate, beasting his way to 20 points and 19 rebounds – eight of which came on the offensive end – while helping force Denver into 47.8 percent shooting near the basket.
Other than Nurkic, though, Portland just couldn’t find a sustainable means of offense, an especially damning sign against a Denver squad with the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating. The Blazers shot a dismal 33 percent from the field and 7-of-33 from beyond the arc. Damian Lillard, a 92.1 percent free-throw shooter, went 7-of-11 at the charity stripe, and Nurkic split a pair of freebies as his team trailed by three with 47 seconds remaining. Portland’s inability to score in a fourth quarter it lost 22-13 was most jarring considering its relative success mere minutes earlier. After extending their lead to 64-53 with 5:42 left in the third quarter, the Blazers closed the game by making six of their last 28 field goal attempts – good for 21.4 percent shooting.
There’s no single reason for Portland’s widespread offensive futility. Many, many makeable looks simply wouldn’t fall, and C.J. McCollum, who went 5-of-18 for 16 points, suffered from perhaps his worst bout of tunnel vision this season. Effective defense is never about missed shots alone, though, and Michael Malone’s matchup gambit forced Portland into a primary means of offense that normally functions as something close to its last resort.
Al-Farouq Aminu‘s shooting struggles continued on Monday; he was just 3-of-13 overall and 1-of-7 from deep. Even those poor numbers don’t accurately portray the scope of his negative influence offensively, though, a byproduct of Malone sticking the plodding Jokic on Aminu and Paul Millsap on Nurkic. The Nuggets were fully content watching Aminu try open triple after open triple after he set ball screens, asking Jokic to force the rock from Lillard’s hands as the primary defender recovered in rear-view pursuit. The result wasn’t just missed jumpers and typically uncomfortable dribble-drives by Aminu, but also clogged driving lanes by the presence of Nurkic, who doesn’t shoot threes, inside the arc.
Time and time again, there was just nowhere for Lillard and McCollum to go. The possession below is from the middle of the fourth quarter, after Aminu had already misfired on multiple 3-point attempts and a pick-and-roll with Lillard was neutralized by Denver committing two to the ball. Another ball-screen with McCollum immediately thereafter failed to yield space for anyone but Aminu, too.
Malone doesn’t only deserve credit for tactical decisions, though. He rushed the court in response to an effective contest by Caleb Swanigan on Jamal Murray with his team trailing 62-53 midway through the third quarter of a literal must-win game, picking up a well-earned technical foul. Malone’s fiery tirade, intentional or not, provided a major spark for the previously listless Nuggets and a sleepy Pepsi Center crowd. Denver went on a 12-4 run from there, closing within a point of the Blazers before trailing by three entering the final stanza, grabbing control of the game’s momentum and refusing to let it go.
This loss is a harsh reminder of what awaits Portland in the playoffs, where the seven-game series format magnifies weaknesses and minimizes strengths. It was never any secret that opponents would try to make anyone other than Lillard beat them, and certainly not one that they would do so in part by daring guys like Aminu, Evan Turner and Moe Harkless – who one surmises might have played some small-ball four on Monday if healthy, given Aminu’s labors – to rain 3-pointers. Still, it’s jarring what the Nuggets were able to do to the Blazers given their middling, at best, defensive personnel. Just imagine the problems a great defensive team could pose for Portland under the postseason microscope if its shots continue to miss the mark.
We’ll find out to an extent during Wednesday’s season finale, when the Utah Jazz visit Moda Center with home-court advantage and playoff positioning on the line. The Blazers will be the three seed if they beat the Jazz, and have essentially been guaranteed of hosting a first-round series at Moda Center; a win for the Oklahoma City Thunder over the tanking Memphis Grizzlies will clinch a top-four spot for Portland regardless of what happens against Utah. The cushion provided by that 13-game winning streak, obviously, still has some give to it.
Either way, the stakes of Wednesday’s game certainly aren’t how the Blazers thought they would be prepping for the playoffs. Their fate in the bracket was supposed to be sealed days ago. But a string of losses to end the season means it isn’t, and allows Portland the chance to enter the second season having shaken out of its weeks-long shooting slump. Unfortunately. nothing that transpired in Denver suggested that’s likely to happen – not on Wednesday, nor going forward.