2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers

Nuggets' defensive change on Damian Lillard alters Game 2

Nuggets coach Michael Malone made a major assignment change to cool down Damian Lillard after his red-hot first half in Game 2.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

Aaron Gordon’s key Game 2 highlight wasn’t dunks, but defense against one of the top scorers in the league.

You wondered how long it might last all the way to the very end.

But the Denver Nuggets’ strategy to assign Aaron Gordon to cool off a red-hot Damian Lillard in the second half on Monday proved to be the ultimate adjustment responsible for the Nuggets tying this Western Conference playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers 1-1 by way of a 128-109 win at Ball Arena.

Despite the Nuggets leading comfortably by 12 points at intermission, it appeared momentum was starting to shift under the weight of Lillard’s hulking second-quarter impact.

Lillard drilled the Nuggets for 22 of Portland’s 36 points in the second quarter of an opening half in which the Trail Blazers trailed by as many as 18 points. But by the end of the third quarter, Denver had already built its halftime lead back up to 14 points by minimizing the damage inflicted by Lillard, who finished the second half with just 10 points on 2-for-9 shooting.

“We all saw what Dame did in that second quarter,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said during his in-game interview headed into the final frame. “We were way too far off him; too much airspace.”

Malone and the Nuggets remedied that by employing the halftime adjustment of assigning Gordon the responsibility of guarding Lillard to start the third quarter. Gordon’s size and athleticism posed problems for the smaller guard, who couldn’t just blow past the wing at will. You can bet the Nuggets plan to employ a similar strategy for slowing down Lillard again on Thursday for Game 3 in Portland (10:30 ET, NBA TV).

Why wouldn’t they?

Lillard poured in 32 points in the first half and tied Vince Carter for the NBA postseason record for 3-pointers (8) made in just one half.

Game Recap: Nuggets 128, Trail Blazers 109

The clock didn’t strike Dame Time until the 6:25 mark of the second quarter with Denver leading 55-37. Lillard nailed three 3-pointers in a row to cut the Nuggets’ lead to 11. He later connected on three more buckets from range with four free throws sandwiched in between in the midst of a Portland 15-5 run that cut Denver’s lead to four points on a Lillard 27-footer with 1:49 remaining in the opening half.

That’s as close as the Trail Blazers would get the rest of the night, thanks to Lillard’s hot shooting (6 of 9 from the field in the first half and 6-for-8 from range).

With Gordon constantly harassing Lillard in the second half, the speedy guard hit on just 1-for-5 from 3-point range.

In a battle flaunting strength against strength — Portland’s backcourt against Denver’s frontcourt — the Nuggets emerged as victors, in part, because of the one small halftime adjustment that siphoned away Lillard’s potency.

Going into intermission, Denver’s frontcourt pieces — led by presumptive Kia MVP Nikola Jokic (38 points, eight rebounds, five assists for the game), Michael Porter Jr., Gordon and Paul Millsap off the bench — had accounted for 54 of the Nuggets’ 73 points. They were especially effective inside, outscoring Portland 34-10 in the paint and 5-0 on second-chance points.

Led by Lillard’s 32 points over the first two quarters, Portland’s backcourt personnel scored 43 of the team’s 61 points at the half, as Denver outscored the Blazers 11-0 on fast breaks through the first two quarters and 16-4 for the game.

The new-look Nuggets showed fight in their Game 2 win.

Portland also struggled to conjure up the magic delivered in Game 1 by veteran reserve Carmelo Anthony. After providing instant offense in Game 1, Anthony scored just five points Monday night on 1-for-5 from the floor and 1-for-4 from deep.

Portland utilized a game plan in Game 1 that allowed Jokic to score while neutralizing his ability to facilitate. The Blazers tried it again in Game 2, but they failed to duplicate the results, in part because Denver’s supporting cast stepped up. Millsap generated 15 points, while Porter contributed 13 points on 3-for-6 from 3-point range. Gordon tallied 13 points, while Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris chipped in 12 points apiece.

For Denver, one more reinforcement could be on the way soon as Malone has said that Will Barton – one of Denver’s main scorers – is close to returning from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him for the first two games of this series.

That could lead to even more adjustments in an already-intriguing game of strategy between these teams.

Let’s see what the chess match between the Nuggets and the Trail Blazers reveals in Game 3.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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