Lack Of Threes, Free Throws Doom Trail Blazers In Game 3

by Casey Holdahl
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PORTLAND -- After stealing away home court advantage by winning Game 1 in Denver, the Trail Blazers gave it right back by losing 120-115 to the Nuggets in Game 3 Thursday night in front of a sellout crowd of 8,050 at the Moda Center.

“I was proud of how we competed,” said Damian Lillard. “I thought we kept fighting, we stayed together, we gave ourselves a chance to win the game. It’s the playoffs, you know it’s going to be a grind it out type of process. It’s going to be a long series, we got one on their floor and they came back and got it back.”

The Nuggets now lead the best-of-seven series 2-1 with Game 4 scheduled for Saturday.

Portland, playing in front of a large collection of fans at home for the first time this year, turned in a much better effort in the early going of Game 3 than they did in Game 2, a game they lost 128-109 Monday night in Denver. With the crowd behind them, the Trail Blazers jumped out to a nine-point lead less than five minutes into the game.

But those kind of leads rarely last, and with the Nuggets finding their three-point stroke early in the quarter, the Trail Blazers went into the second quarter actually trailing by nine thanks to a 14-0 Nuggets run to end the first.

The Nuggets’ ability to hit from deep, paired with the Trail Blazers’ inability to do the same, would be the difference in Thursday’s contest. And with how reliant the Trail Blazers are on three-point shooting, having a 21-point deficit in points scored off threes in the first half led to Portland going into the intermission trailing 64-59.

But even when Portland managed to slow down Denver’s onslaught from deep in the third quarter, the Nuggets found an even better way to score: at the free throw line. Though Denver didn’t have a single field goal from the 7:58 mark of the third quarter to the 11:07 mark of the fourth, they still managed to retain their lead thanks to a seemingly endless parade of trips to the free throw line. By time the third was over, the Nuggets had shot 10 free throws in the quarter compared to none for the Trail Blazers.

However, thanks to Carmelo Anthony coming alive in the fourth quarter to the tune of eight-straight points, the Trail Blazers tied the game at 91-91 with just over seven minutes to play. With the threes finally starting to fall and the crowd going crazy, the stage was set for a thrilling end to a winnable game.

But instead, the Nuggets went on a 15-5 run, powered by Austin Rivers making three three-pointers in a little less than a two-minute span, to push Denver’s advantage to 10 with 2:42 to play.

“We tied the game up, 91-91, and I just felt like, other than Austin Rivers hitting a free threes, he hit some big shots, it just seemed like everything we did was a foul,” said Damian Lillard. “I just felt like some of them were fouls, but every damn thing we did down the stretch of a playoff game, the whistle was just blowing. We playing aggressive and physical just like they are and everything we do is a foul. Any time that’s the case, you getting whistled for a foul pretty much every time down, down the stretch of the game, when the game is on the line, and you give up a few threes and they’re shooting the ball that well from three, it’s going to be hard to win a game.”

Portland did get the lead down to one possession late in the game, but couldn’t secure a rebound, nor stop Nikola Jokic from getting a putback off a missed free throws, to give themselves a chance to send the game to overtime.

Lillard finished with 37 points on 15-of-31 shooting, five assists, two rebounds and two steals in 39 minutes. CJ McCollum added 22 points and nine rebounds, though he and Lillard combined to go just 8-of-26 from three.

Norman Powell had 18 points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal in 36 minutes. Anthony contributed 17 off the bench and Jusuf Nurkic had 13 points, 13 rebounds and six assists before fouling out in 32 minutes.

Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 36 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 35 minutes. Austin Rivers had 21 points, Michael Porter Jr. finished with 15 and Aaron Gordon added 13.

Now the Trail Blazers will try to square the series when they host the Nuggets Saturday afternoon in Game 4 at the Moda Center.

“Now we’ve got to make sure we get the next one,” said Lillard. “The next one is going to be a big one, so we’ve got to make sure we handle business.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.

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