• In seasons past, this might have been a blowout victory for the Denver Nuggets. But the 2017-18 Portland Trail Blazers, for all their faults established and developing, have the defensive fortitude to stay competitive against good teams when offense is harder to come by than normal, and that’s exactly what they did on Saturday night. Just one problem: The Blazers never found an answer for Jamal Murray.

    Denver staged a mini, late-game run to beat Portland 103-101 in a tightly-contested affair between a pair of playoff hopefuls. Lillard led the Blazers with 25 points and eight assists, while Jusuf Nurkic abused his old team with 19 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. Those guys didn’t receive the sustained support they needed late, though, opening the door for Murray to steal the game – an outcome Portland could have seen coming after his awesome first quarter.

    Both teams shot an abysmal 31.6 percent in the opening stanza, after which Denver led Portland 20-19. But the Blazers didn’t allow a single second-chance bucket or fast-break point, a harbinger of good things to come considering those areas are where the Nuggets thrive. Denver’s struggles, with the notable exception of Murray’s 15 points, extended to the second quarter, while Lillard got Portland going with several ultra-difficult shots both in the paint and beyond the arc. If there’s an attribute the Blazers have that that other Western Conference playoff hopefuls lack, it’s the flammability of Lillard and McCollum. Those guys can catch fire at any time, regardless of the defense being played, and that’s exactly what happened for Lillard before halftime.

    If only McCollum, or anyone other than Murray, for that matter, had followed his lead.

    Denver opened the second half on an 8-0 run, after the Blazers began settling on offense rather than probing for efficient looks late in the clock. Following a timeout by Stotts, though, Nurkic decided to take matters into his own hands. The former Nuggets center, who was booed by the sparse Pepsi Center crowd during pre-game introductions, had 11 points and six rebounds in the third quarter alone, and got some bragging rights over Jokic with a weak-side spike into the stands.

    None of it mattered in the end, however, because Murray simply refused to let his team lose. The sophomore guard was brilliant all game long, but especially when it mattered most, scoring 10 of his game-high 38 points – on video-game like 14-of-19 shooting overall and 4-of-6 from deep – in the game’s final six minutes and 58 seconds. He tied the score at 95-95 with a side-step triple from center as the game clock read 2:07, and gave Denver its first lead since early in the fourth quarter – one it wouldn’t relinquish – with a right-footed, right-handed runner going to his left with just 33 seconds remaining.

    The frantic, multi-shot possession that followed yielded nothing from Portland on the scoreboard, and the officials eventually ruled the ball went off Lillard on his drive to the basket with 2.9 seconds remaining. The Blazers were forced to play the foul game from there, but had little chance of winning it because Stotts had used all his timeouts. Game over.

    In-game context not withstanding, this isn’t a bad loss for Portland in terms of process. Denver is a solid team with a wealth of young talent, and its most dangerous offensive player enjoyed the game of his life. The Blazers could have made life harder on Murray at the point of attack, but that issue would be on the periphery of a fourth consecutive victory if C.J. McCollum (3-of-14 from the field) connected on many makable shots or Al-Farouq Aminu made one of his five open attempts from beyond the arc.

    Any game is losable in the NBA when one team is far from its best and an opposing player has a 48-minute hot hand. This loss, despite the sting of a fourth-quarter collapse, doesn’t say much more about Portland than that. Well, except for adding to the likelihood that the Blazers’ penultimate game of the regular season against the Nuggets on April 9 will possess major, major playoff implications.

    NOTES

    • Stotts might want to further experiment with a frontcourt of Zach Collins and Nurkic. Foul trouble on Aminu forced Portland that direction late in the second quarter, and the ensuing defensive dominance in the paint was striking. Collins is getting better and better contesting shots at the rim with verticality, and has the length and quick-twitch athleticism to grab rebounds out of his area. If the shot comes around, which it will eventually, expect to see this look more often. Regardless, Collins continues playing his way into more minutes. Question is, whose does he take – especially if he’s exclusively playing power forward?
    • Davis isn’t known for making plays with the ball in his hands, but showed exceptional patience on multiple rolls after setting ball screens against the Nuggets. First was a catch, spin dribble and kick-out to Turner for three at the top of the key as the defense scrambled. The second was even more impressive: catch, survey, extra dribble, draw extra help defender and fire airborne bullet to Collins on weak side for three. That’s the type of subtlety that will help Portland eventually get out of their sustained offensive funk for good.

    • With Mo Harkless out of the rotation and Turner forever limited by his broad shoulders and lack of quickness, Connaughton has pretty clearly become the Blazers’ best perimeter defender. He fights hard through screens, cleans up mistakes of his teammates and has enough hops to get effective contests when a more middling defender couldn’t. Connaughton isn’t super disruptive and doesn’t have the length to check elite forwards, but he’s the Blazers’ best option on wings at this point. Stotts must not think too highly of Connaughton’s defensive ability, though: He was on the bench when Murray was going nuclear in crunch-time.
    • Aminu made several great passes on Saturday night, not all of which directly led to points but were an indicator of his increased playmaking comfort nonetheless. He attacked hard close-outs and found bigs in the paint, consistently made the extra pass on the perimeter and always exuded poise with the ball in his hands. The box score doesn’t show it, but Aminu was a big reason why Portland came alive offensively after a stagnant first quarter.

Fantasy News

  • Fred VanVleet
    PG, Toronto Raptors

    Fred VanVleet scored 24 points on 8-of-18 shooting adding four 3's, five rebounds, seven assists and a steal in Saturday's 102-110 loss to the Mavericks.

    VanVleet continues to get the green-light in teammate Kyle Lowry's absence and is able to generate plenty of shooting opportunities. The increased ball-handling opportunities is also a huge boon for his fantasy stock as he is averaging a career high 7.6 assists per game. Fantasy owners should continue to play VanVleet indiscriminately even when Lowry returns.

  • CJ McCollum
    SG, Portland Trail Blazers

    C.J. McCollum hit six threes on Saturday on his way to scoring 32 points (13-of-25 from the field) with six rebounds and seven assists.

    McCollum has struggled from the floor this season only shooting .407 before Saturday. That should turn around for the career .453 shooter and once the shooting comes back McCollum should be a safe mid-round player.

  • Pascal Siakam
    PF, Toronto Raptors

    Pascal Siakam went 6-of-24 for 15 points to go along with five turnovers, three rebounds, seven assists, a steal and block in Saturday's loss to the Mavs.

    Siakam struggled mightily against Dallas tonight and could not find his shot forcing up a game-high 24 shots, with 10 from behind the arc. He is clearly the Raptors offensive focal point and co-lead the team with seven assists, so tonight's stinker shouldn't discourage his fantasy owners as he will continue to provide second-round value.

  • Hassan Whiteside
    C, Portland Trail Blazers

    Hassan Whiteside double-doubled on Saturday with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and three blocks.

    Whiteside was also a perfect 5-of-5 from the line and is now shooting .766 from the line on the season. The free throw percentage will likely drop, but Whiteside is a walking double-double with averages of 15.3 points and 12.2 rebounds to go with 1.8 blocks.

  • Damian Lillard
    PG, Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard scored 22 points (4-of-19 from the floor) while shooting a perfect 13-of-13 from the line to go with six assists on Saturday.

    Lillard struggled from the floor but provided a big boost in free throw percentage on Saturday. Lillard should provide first-round value all season.

  • Chris Boucher
    PF, Toronto Raptors

    Chris Boucher played just 12 minutes only scoring 3 points while adding three rebounds and a block in Saturday's loss to the Mavericks.

    A priority add in all leagues, Boucher failed to get off the bench for the injury-riddled Raptors. After a solid outing on Monday this is a real stinker for Boucher-owners as the team is running on fumes. It is advisable for fantasy owners to remain patient, as the Raps have almost no other bigs, but if he cannot get off the bench he should not be rostered for long.

  • LaMarcus Aldridge
    PF, San Antonio Spurs

    LaMarcus Aldridge double-doubled on Saturday with 30 points (12-of-20 from the floor), 13 rebounds and two 3-pointers in 35 minutes.

    Hopefully this scoring burst can get Aldridge going on the offensive end after a slow start to the season. After Saturday Aldridge is averaging 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while shooting .522 from the field and .830 from the line.

  • Derrick White
    PG, San Antonio Spurs

    Derrick White scored 10 points (3-of-6 shooting) with three rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks in 34 minutes on Saturday.

    White started for Dejounte Murray (rest) and put up a well-rounded line with great defensive stats. White is inconsistent and has his upside capped since Coach Popovich doesn't play he and Murray together. White is a player to watch in case that situation changes and he starts to see his minutes climb. Until then he is a stash with upside and will be inconsistent.

  • James Harden
    PG, Houston Rockets

    James Harden continued his torrid offensive form scoring 49 points, along with five rebounds, six assists and eight triples in Saturday's 125-105 win vs. the Wolves.

    Harden feasted on the offensive end with Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Danuel House and Clint Capela all out. He went a whopping 15-of-41 from the field, including 8-of-22 from three. He also chipped 9-of-11 from the line. Harden is continuing his monster fantasy season. Just enjoy the ride.

  • Marc Gasol
    C, Toronto Raptors

    Marc Gasol was flat-footed in the contest shooting just 1-of-7 from the field and adding nine rebounds, two assists and a steal in Saturday's loss to the Mavs.

    Gasol matched up against Dallas' Kristaps Porzingis in this one and was dominated in the post. Gasol just could not get his shot over the 7'3" Porzingis and did not even bother to pull him out of the paint only attempting two shots from behind the arc. He just is not the player he used to be but with the Raptors injuries piling up Gasol will continue to get plenty of minutes to string fantasy owners along.