On a night where Damian Lillard was only human, the Denver Nuggets pulled away at the end of the game for a 2-1 series lead over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The daggers that struck down the Blazers came not just from MVP candidate Nikola Jokic, but perennial pest for Portland, Austin Rivers, who got hot in the fourth quarter. Rivers hit multiple long threes as CJ McCollum got lost trying to double team Jokic, giving Denver a lead they would not lose. Denver would pull off a 120-115 win that really was not as close as that score would indicate.
Here are the takeaways from Game Three:
- A Broken Bench
After a horrific first-half showing by Enes Kanter, Coach Terry Stotts pulled him with a -15 rating in just six minutes, during which the Nuggets took an early nine-point lead. Kanter’s defense has been abysmal in this series, reducing the Portland rotation even further. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made his first appearance in meaningful playoff minutes for the Blazers but was largely a non-factor. If it were not for Carmelo Anthony trying his best to get Portland back into the game in the fourth quarter, the bench would have been non-existent.
On the flip side, Denver’s bench buoyed the team when the starters could not hit their shots, combining for 24 points. Paul Millsap continues to be a stabilizing veteran presence for the Nuggets second unit. Monte Morris has been a big boost of energy, doing a little of everything to help Denver succeed.
What seems to be a constant in the Terry Stotts era has been a bench that cannot step up when the Blazers need them most.
2. Supporting Cast Falls Flat
CJ McCollum had a game to forget. He shot a deceivingly bad 8-of-20 from the field, 3-of-10 from three, and played some of the worst defense he has had in Portland since his first two or three years in the league. His fourth-quarter defensive lapses against Austin Rivers sank the team’s hopes, and his inability to find his shot only compounded the issues. Jusuf Nurkic put out a better effort, but foul trouble ended his night early. He has yet to find a way to aggressively defend Jokic without the Nuggets star finding a way to put Nurkic in trouble with the referees. Robert Covington provided the “D” half of the “3-and-D” but missed the other part, scoring just six points on 3-of-9 shooting. At least Norman Powell found his shot in the third quarter.
Damian Lillard cannot be a superhero in every single game. The other starters need to have his back when Lillard gets pressed and double-teamed.
3. As Even As It Can Be
If you looked at the box score and not the actual score, you would think the game would be tied or close to it. Both teams were close in rebounds, fouls, turnovers, steals, and assists. The one stat that changed the outcome: Denver shot 52.6% from three, Portland shot 31.1. Denver hit their shots down the stretch. The Blazers, outside of late Lillard heroics, did not. Portland managed to play average defense in the second and third quarters and held the hot Denver offense in check. In the end, it was not enough.
There is not a good solution. It is unlikely that current bench warmers Nassir Little or Harry Giles III can step up. Kanter is a massive defensive liability and seems to have lost the slack Stotts had given him. Derrick Jones Jr. is still locked in the dog house. The Blazers are top-heavy to an extreme degree, and on nights like this where Lillard is not playing like a combination of Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, and Allen Iverson, the Blazers need to find an answer.