DENVER -- Damian Lillard almost pulled it off on his own, but even at the height of his powers, he needed help Tuesday night in Denver.
In the end, what help he did received wasn’t enough.
After rallying from a 22-point first-half deficit and forcing two overtimes, the latter of which was due almost entirely to a historic performance from Lillard, the Trail Blazers would fall 147-140 to the Nuggets in Game 5 Tuesday night in front of 10,463 at Ball Arena.
“It was the best playoff performance I’ve ever seen,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of Lillard’s 55-point effort. “He gave it his all. Obviously he made a lot of shots. He gave it his all, we’re all disappointed.”
The three-seed Nuggets now lead the six-seed Trail Blazers 3-2 in their first round, best-of-seven series with Game 6 scheduled for Thursday in Portland.
“Tough loss, it's do or die now,” said Lillard. “We've got to win both of the next two games if we want our season to continue. It's as simple as that.”
Nothing the Trail Blazers did in the first quarter gave any indication that Tuesday’s game would turn into one of the most exciting of the 2021 Playoffs. Portland missed their first eight attempts, were down 10 before they put their first points on the board, turned the ball over four times and trailed by as many as 16 before heading into the second quarter down 38-25.
Denver’s bench picked up where the starters left off, going on a 12-0 run to take their largest lead of the game at 54-32 with 7:52 to play in the half. At that point, and considering the way the three previous games had played out, it felt as though the competitive portion of the night, if you could even call it that, was over.
But after playing about as poorly as they possible could through the first 16 minutes, the Trail Blazers finally got their wits about them midway through the second quarter. They’d go on a 14-0 run, with the starting guards scoring all but one of those points, while holding the Nuggets scoreless for over four minutes of play to cut a considerable lead down to six with 2:20 to play in the first half.
“There's no question in how we played after we got down 22, we were a different team,” said Stotts. “We knew that they were going to come out with a lot of energy, with the crowd behind him, and we had a bad start.”
By time the half was over, Portland had outscored Denver 23-6 in the final seven minutes of the second quarter to go into the intermission down 65-62, which qualified as the first minor miracle of the evening.
The Blazers took their first lead of the game with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter, and would go on to take a 94-92 advantage into the fourth. The Nuggets reclaimed the lead midway through the fourth thanks to an 8-0 run, though the Blazers managed to counter with a 7-0 run to tie the game at 105-105 with just over six minutes to play in regulation.
The rest of regulation would continue that way, with the Nuggets going on mini-runs to take two-possessions leads, only to have the Blazers answer back to tie the game. It happened with Robert Covington made a three with 2:23 to play in regulation to tie the game at 115-115 and again when, after Monte Morris made two free throws to put the Nuggets up 121-118 with 12.4 seconds to play, Lillard made a 28-foot stepback three over Michael Porter Jr. with 3.7 seconds to play in regulation that would send the game to overtime.
But after getting significant contributions from all five of the starters to get back into the game and eventually force overtime, no one but Lillard managed to have an impact offensively in either overtime. Enes Kanter, who saw minutes in Game 5 thanks to Jusuf Nurkic fouling out in 24 minutes, scored the first Portland points of the first overtime, but no other Trail Blazers but Lillard would score thereafter in either overtime.
“We did what we could; we didn't see the ball go in,” said Covington. “We didn't do enough as a unit, we shot the ball overall 45 percent, but guys just didn't step up and make a lot of plays or hit a lot of shots.”
With every non-Lillard Trail Blazer missing every attempt taken, Portland found themselves down 132-123 with 2:16 to play in the first overtime, and for the second time Tuesday night, it seemed as if the game was effectively over.
But Lillard, who has proven himself time and time again to be one of the most clutch shooters the NBA has ever seen, outscored the Nuggets 12-2, a run that included a 27-foot stepback with 6.6 seconds to play in the first overtime, to tie the game at 135-135 and force another extra period.
But after playing nearly 47 minutes, Lillard was unable to match the Nuggets on his own in the second overtime like he did in the first. The Blazers, or to be more specific, Lillard, would be outscored 12-5 in the second overtime, giving the Nuggets the seven-point win and control of the series.
“Dame made great plays all night for us,” said CJ McCollum. “It’s a shame we wasted one of the best performances you’ll probably see in the playoffs by not getting off to a good start, not defending and not bailing him out. We had some great looks, a lot of corner threes. Me specifically, I have to be better for this team and for him, and I will be.”
Lillard finished with career playoff high 55 points on 17-of-24 shooting from the field, 10 assist, six rebounds, three blocks and a steal in nearly 52 minutes. And he set a new NBA playoff record with 12 three-pointers, all the more impressive considering he took “only” 17 attempts.
“It doesn't matter, we lost the game,” said Lillard. “At this point, all that matters is that we can't lose another game in this series. We go out there and we played to win the game and we came up short.”
McCollum went 7-of-22 for 18 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, two blocks and a steal before fouling out in just under 51 minutes. Nurkic fouled out with 13 points and 11 rebounds and Covington also fouled out, albeit with 19 points and 11 rebounds in 43 minutes. Norman Powell went 5-of-14 for 13 points and three assists in 50 minutes.
Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with a near triple-double of 38 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in 46 minutes. Morris put up 28 points, with 10 of those coming from the free throw line and Porter Jr. added 26 points and 12 rebounds in 47 minutes.
Now the Trail Blazers face elimination when they return to the Moda Center to host the Nuggets in Game 6 Thursday night. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.