Blazers Get Gutsy Victory In Denver To Even Series 1-1

by Casey Holdahl
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DENVER -- After losing Game 1 to the Nuggets in Denver, the Trail Blazers vowed to turn in a better defensive effort in Game 2. They kept that vow, and are heading back home to Portland with something to show for it.

After the Nuggets shot better than 50 percent in Game 1, the Trail Blazers held Denver to 35 percent shooting to tie their Western Conference Semifinals series with a 97-90 victory in front of an announced sellout of 19,520 Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

“I really liked our approach in the first half, particularly the first quarter,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I thought defensively we were much better than Game 1. I thought we did a better job on the ball, they didn’t get a lot of the easy things that they got last game. I thought we sustained it really well during the first half.”

The series is now even at 1-1 with the next two games to be played at the Moda Center in Portland.

Between playing more physically and doing a far better job of defending the three-point line, the Trail Blazers set the tone for their defensive approach in Game 2 early on in the first quarter. The Nuggets still shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from three in the first quarter, but the work Portland put in the first quarter would ultimately pay off.

And it didn’t take long. After taking a 28-23 lead after the first quarter, the Trail Blazers held Denver to just 5-of-23 shooting from the field and 0-of-10 shooting from three in the second quarter. The Nuggets’ inability to hit an open shot, which their home crowd was quick to remind them of Wednesday night, certainly didn’t help their cause, but the Trail Blazers, especially their reserves, locked in on the defensive end to make what was already a poor shooting night more difficult.

And even with Portland having their own issues putting the ball in the basket — they went just 8-of-23 from the field and 1-of-7 from three in the second quarter — they were nonetheless able to outscore the Nuggets 22-12 to take a 50-35 lead into the intermission.

‘We just tried to wear them down,” said Trail Blazers guard/forward Rodney Hood. “We picked them up full court a lot. Me and Jake Layman and Moe (Harkless) before he got hurt, picking up full court, picking Jokic up, just making them work so they don’t have such a free flowing offense. I think it worked tonight, we gotta keep that going.”

Both teams would shoot better in the third quarter, but between their shotmaking and defense, Portland shot 10 percentage point better than Denver in the third. But thanks to three offensive rebounds and eight free throws, the Nuggets outscored the Blazers every so slightly in the third to cut the lead to 78-64 going into the fourth and final quarter.

After being the better team for the majority of the first three quarter, the Blazers had a difficult time closing out a Nuggets team determined to protect home court. Once again, both teams had a hard time scoring, but with the Nuggets absolutely dominating the offensive glass — they logged 14 offensive rebound in the fourth quarter alone — they were able to cut the lead to single digits midway through the quarter.

"The good news is, they had all of those offensive rebounds, but they didn’t convert a lot, they were 8-24 on second-chance points," said Stotts. "We were very fortunate that we came away not hurt as badly as we could have been on the offensive boards. Millsap and Jokic were playing volleyball with it. They are both excellent offensive rebounders. They are a top-3 offensive rebounding team anyway, so we have to make sure they don’t have those opportunities next game.”

But the Blazers always seemed to make a play when the Nuggets were threatening to get over the top. Whether it was an Al-Farouq Aminu fastbreak dunk or a three-pointer CJ McCollum, Hood or Seth Curry, Portland got big buckets at timely points in the fourth to eventually secure the seven-point victory and wrestle away home court from the two-seed.

“Just making timely plays," said Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. "You have to want it more and then you have to have a few plays go your way. I thought CJ had a few big plays at the end, Enes had some big plays, and Chief just competed in the paint with those big guys. Rodney [Hood] 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."

Kanter, playing through a left shoulder injury, put up another gutsy performance, going 5-of-10 from the field and 5-of-5 from the free throw line to finish with 15 points to go with nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 31 minutes.

After a tough shooting night in Game 1, McCollum went 8-of-20 from the field and 3-of-7 from three for 20 points to go with six rebounds and six assists in 41 minutes. Portland is now 4-1 in the 2019 Playoffs when the 6-4 guard out of Lehigh scores at least 20 points.

“I was just trying to be aggressive," said McCollum. "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 weakside, being aware of the help defender, and trying to make the right play."

Farouq Aminu put up 11 points and 10 rebounds for his seventh career playoff double-double in 30 minutes. Lillard added 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting to go with four rebounds, four assists and two steals in 38 minutes.

Hood came off the bench to score 15 points in 27 minutes and Zach Collins added 10 points and six assists in 17 minutes.

The Nuggets had four players finish in double figures despite the team shooting 35 percent from the field, with Jokic leading Denver with 16 points and 14 rebounds.

"I thought Chief, Enes [Kanter], Moe, Zach had a huge game tonight, had a huge impact on the game, and just making (Jokic) work," said Lillard. "When he does get on the block, making him see bodies, stunting on the post, double team him, having active hands when he is trying to make plays. When he’s going up at the rim, contesting all his shots."

Jamal Murray added 15 points and Paul Millsap had 14.

While the Blazers were able to secure the win, Moe Harkless left the first half with a sprained right ankle and did not return.

"Jokic drove to the basket, his guy was guarding him, Zach contested, I went up to contest as well, and I think I landed on Zach’s foot," said Harkless. "The replay I saw, it wasn’t a good angle to really see if I hit his foot or his ankle, but it looked like I rolled it."

The series now moves to Portland, with Game 3 scheduled for Friday night at the Moda Center.

“They say the series starts when someone wins a game on the road and we were able to do that tonight, so our goal is to just take it one game at a time and protect our home floor," said Lillard. "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."

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.

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