It was only a matter of time before the holes in the Portland Trail Blazers system caused their defeat.
Everything that critics shredded the Blazers for coming into the series hit all at once in a crushing 128-109 loss, which evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. While Damian Lillard’s superheroics kept the game competitive, the Nuggets ruthlessly exploited the Blazers’ flaws.
Takeaway Number One: The Defense Was Offensive
Unquestionably the biggest issue was Portland’s defense, which more closely resembled traffic cones in Blazers jerseys than anything that would give the Nuggets pause. Denver shot 66% from the field in the first half, 53.5% overall, and became the 22nd opponent to score over 120 points against Portland this season, the fourth-worst in the NBA.
Nikola Jokic put on his usual show for the Nuggets with 38 points, but the forwards showed the Blazers’ struggles. Michael Porter Jr had 18, Aaron Gordon had 13, and Paul Millsap continued to be a thorn in Portland’s side with 15 off the bench. Many of these points came at the expense of Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter, forcing coach Terry Stotts to turn back briefly to exiled defensive spark plug Derrick Jones Jr. Robert Covington and Norman Powell were similarly ineffective, a gut-punch considering how much trade capital was invested in those players.
Takeaway Number Two: Only Superhuman
Lillard did everything he could to keep the Blazers in the game. He tied an NBA record with eight made threes in the first half, closing what was at one point a 21-point lead to 12 by the halftime break. He finished with 42 points on an efficient 11-of-24 from the field.
However, Lillard is only one player. Denver clamped down on him in the second half, limiting him to just ten second-half points as they dared the other Portland players to beat them. CJ McCollum responded with 13 in the second half to score 21 for the game, but the only other Blazer to get into double figures was Powell with 15. Jusuf Nurkic was neutralized as an offensive threat out of the pick-and-roll, Covington had more turnovers (4) than points (3), and the bench scored only 21 points, much of that bolstered by late garbage time buckets.
The game was a solid analogy for the entire Blazers season: defensive misery and inept shooting kept aloft by Lillard’s unreal ability to keep Portland in the game.
Takeaway Number Three: Find a Plan B
It is clear that the current rotation of players is not working. Kanter, Anthony, and Anfernee Simons combine to be a black hole in which advanced defensive metrics go to die. Stotts has tried to keep either Lillard or McCollum on the court during the bench minutes. Still, Lillard is an average defender, and McCollum has regressed to below-average, hurting the defense even more.
Covington and Powell were brought in for their new-age style 3-and-D gameplay, but so far are not providing either. Covington is forced to make up for the defensive lapses of his teammates, putting him in foul trouble and limiting his effectiveness. Powell is trying to be the one-on-one lockdown defense he was in Toronto, but his style does not work with the Blazers’ system, and his aggressiveness on defense is not protected the same way. There is a world of difference between counting on Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to cover your flaws and asking Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter to do the same.
The options for Coach Stotts are limited. None of the recently drafted players can be counted on to score reliably. Simons can score in bunches if given the opportunity but is aggravatingly inconsistent, and his defense is sub-par. Nassir Little has vanished. Gary Trent Jr showed offensive promise but was sent to the Raptors at the deadline for Powell. That said, Portland needs to find a bench fix. Lillard cannot be the only option. Covington and Powell need to be engaged as scoring options, not hiding in the corner while McCollum and Lillard play ISO heavy, ball-dominant possessions.
The Blazers need a solution to their glaring issues, or this series is going to be short.