DENVER -- As much as these Portland Trail Blazers are about Damian Lillard's toughness, resilience, drive, talent and skill, there’s more to them than just Lillard.
This team that’s been crafted around Lillard, the Blazers’ All-NBA point guard, had to rescue their leader this time.
“Dame Time” never materialized Wednesday night at Pepsi Center in Game 2 of these Western Conference semifinals.
Lillard was off, basically from the start. He simply didn’t have his usual juice, shooting 5-for-17 from the floor and finishing with a postseason low 14 points and four assists.
But the rest of the Blazers, from CJ McCollum to seldom-used reserve forward Jake Layman, showed up and carried the Blazers. That gave Portland a 97-90 win against the Denver Nuggets that evened the series as it heads to Portland for Friday’s Game 3 at Moda Center (10:30 ET, ESPN).
“I thought we wore them down in the first half, even though we weren’t shooting the ball particularly well,” Lillard said in assessing his team’s thorough effort. “Then in the second half it was just a grind it out kind of game. In those games you just have to be the tougher team. You have to want it more and then you have to have a few plays go your way.”
The thought of the Blazers stealing the home-court advantage on a night when Lillard struggled through one of his toughest games of the season would have seemed laughable before this.
Doing it with Lillard struggling and down two other starters (starting center Jusuf Nurkic in late March; forward Maurice Harkless injured his ankle and played just 13 first-half minutes in Game 2) seemed ... impossible?
And yet there was McCollum, time after time, nailing a shot, grabbing a rebound or finding an open teammate to hold the Nuggets off late. He finished with a game-high 20 points (on 8-for-20 shooting, to go with six rebounds and six assists) on a physically bruising night when draining open shots turned out to be a difficult task for all involved.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” said McCollum, who averaged 33.7 points this season in games where Lillard was held to 15 points or less. “I think that was the biggest thing, be aggressive, take what the defense gives me. Obviously, looking to score. But if it’s not there, being aware of the weak side, being aware of the help defender and trying to make the right play.”
It worked that way for all of the Blazers, whatever it took to make the right plays.
Al Farouq-Aminu bounced back from a rough Game 1, finishing with a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) and some tone-setting defense early on Nuggets power forward Paul Millsap.
Enes Kanter, the starting center with the busted left shoulder, played Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic to a virtual standstill. In addition, Portland go some huge relief minutes from Zach Collins (10 points on 5-for-6 shooting, six rebounds).
It was a weird game for us. They didn’t even play that good, to be honest. They can play better than that. It was kind of a weird game where they were more aggressive than we were.”
Seth Curry nailed a huge 3-pointer late and Evan Turner was right on time in his 18 minutes, providing quality work on both ends in a physical affair that left both teams spent physically and emotionally at the end.
But perhaps the finest effort of the night was turned in by reserve swingman Rodney Hood, as his 15 points (on 5-for-11 shooting), three rebounds and three huge blocks couldn’t have come at a better time. These Blazers are determined to write their ticket to the conference finals after being swept in the previous two postseason trips.
Hood drilled a 22-footer from the corner off a sweet feed from Lillard with 2:02 to play, pushing the lead back to 10 (94-84) and silencing the crowd. He made three of four free throws in 17 seconds to finish things off.
“I thought CJ had a few big plays at the end,” Lillard said. “Enes had some big plays and Chief (Aminu) just competed in the paint with those big guys. Rodney in there competing, Enes competing on their offensive end. Even when they kept getting tips and second and third opportunities, they were having to work for it and we were getting shots contested down there, so we were able to get stops. In this type of game, I think that’s what you need, a tough group effort. You just need a few guys to make a few big-time plays, and I thought C.J., Chief and Enes did that at the end of the game.”
How big was this win for the Blazers in the Lillard era? Consider that they are now 3-10 all-time now when Lillard has been held below 20 points. And they are just 3-18, dating back to 2014, in road playoff games.
But they controlled this game early and snatched it from the team with the NBA's best regular-season home record (34-7). If the Blazers have visions of making the conference finals -- and you better believe they do -- this gutsy performance might pave the way.
“They say the series starts when someone wins a game on the road and we were able to do that tonight,” Lillard said. “So our goal is just to take it one game at a time and protect our home floor. We have two games on our home floor and we have to be just as sharp, if not better, because you know they are going to come back better. That’s our main focus -- just take care of our home floor.”
As Lillard says, there is still plenty of business to handle. The Nuggets earned the West's No. 2 seed for a reason.
Denver pummeled Portland on the Game 2 boards with 23 offensive rebounds, but couldn't take advantage of those opportunities. They were 6-for-29 on 3-pointers and Jokic never got rolling like he did in Game 1.
“It’s not just how they play me,” Jokic said. “They were aggressive as a team as a group. They were coming on my post-ups, but that doesn’t really change how we play. The energy was kind of bad. I say that and we have 23 offensive rebounds. It was a weird game for us. They didn’t even play that good, to be honest. They can play better than that. It was kind of a weird game where they were more aggressive than we were.”
It was a game where the Blazers clearly recognized the magnitude of the moment and rose to the challenge.
Friday night becomes more than just a must-win game.
It’s an epic showdown, an opportunity for a team that's showcasing it's not all about Lillard to take serious control of this series and continue Portland's playoff redemption tour.
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