Denver Nuggets 96, Portland Trail Blazers 100: Three takeaways from Game 7

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

A late-game comeback attempt fell short in Game 7 as cold shooting and tough shot-making from C.J. McCollum did the Denver Nuggets in. Despite a furious comeback attempt in the final minutes, the Nuggets’ season came to an end in the Western Conference semifinals Sunday.

"Tonight is the end of the season, but I'm not going to allow it to take away from the magical year we had,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I couldn't have asked for anything more from our guys."

It was another quick start for the Nuggets as they jumped out to an early 14-7 lead on the back of strong shooting (5 of 7 from the field, 2 of 2 from three). A balanced scoring attack led the way for Denver in the quarter, as four players scored at least 6 points. The Nuggets held Portland to 7-of-25 from the field on their way to building a 29-17 lead after one.

Denver’s bench extended the lead to 39-22 after the first five minutes of the second as the defense continued to get stops. Portland would respond with a 9-0 run midway through the quarter to get within eight points, but the Nuggets starters extended the lead back up to double-digits shortly after. Ultimately, the Nuggets took a 48-39 lead into the halftime break.

Portland continued to chip away at the lead to begin the third quarter. Midway through the quarter, the Nuggets lead was cut down to just five at 60-55. It was a back-and-forth affair for the remainder of the quarter as the Nuggets held on to a 72-71 lead after three. Portland outscored Denver 32-24 in the quarter to climb back into the game.

The Trail Blazers went on an early 10-4 run to begin the fourth quarter, which gave them an 81-76 lead with just under nine minutes remaining. Portland continued to hold on to a lead throughout the majority of the quarter as Denver’s offense struggled to consistently generate quality looks. Although Denver’s defense continued to get stops, the offense wasn’t able to cut into Portland’s lead.

The Nuggets made a valiant effort in the final minutes of the game, as they used a 10-4 run of their own to get within one point with 30 seconds remaining. However, McCollum responded with a step-back jumper to extend Portland’s lead back up to three. Portland decided to foul on the ensuing possession and Nikola Jokić missed the first of two free throws. Denver’s season was riding on Evan Turner, who calmly knocked down two free throws to all but seal the Portland victory.

"The Denver Nuggets had an outstanding season, no one saw that coming,” Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “Nikola Jokić is an amazing player, they're a young team, they're going to have a lot of success moving forward."

Three takeaways:

1) C.J. McCollum couldn’t be stopped

All of the noise coming into Game 7 was about Damian Lillard having another opportunity to make his mark on a series. However, ultimately it was McCollum who led the way for Portland as he dropped 37 points on 58.6 percent shooting from the field. McCollum dribbled his way into a variety of looks from around the court as Denver couldn’t consistently take him out of the game. In a game in which Lillard struggled mightily, McCollum answered the bell for Portland.

2) Nikola Jokić continued to dominate

A main storyline throughout the entire series was the lack of defensive options that Portland had for Nikola Jokić. The trend continued in Game 7 as Denver’s All-Star finished with 28 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in 42 minutes of action. Jokić had success throughout the series and proved that he can be the No. 1 option for a team in the playoffs, even while shouldering a big usage and heavy minutes. Despite the tough loss, Jokić continued to be the driving force until the very end.

"I hope after 14 playoff games that America came to appreciate Nikola's game,” Malone said. “He's upset because he didn't think he did enough for us to win the game. We all know it's not on him."

3) Denver was locked in defensively

Just as they did in their first Game 7 this postseason, the Nuggets came to play on the defensive end. Portland shot just 40.9 percent from the field and 15.4 percent from beyond the arc. Denver’s perimeter defense against Lillard was particularly impressive, as Lillard was held to 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting from the field, which put more pressure on McCollum to lead the Trail Blazers’ offense. The Nuggets continued to stay in the game as a result of their defense, which gave them an opportunity to tie the game in the final seconds.

Despite the season-ending loss, Malone is more than comfortable with the state of the franchise. "I love where we're at, but more importantly I love where we're going and who we're going there with."

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