Denver Nuggets fall 115-108 to the Portland Trail Blazers

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The undermanned Nuggets gave the Blazers all they could handle at the Moda Center on Sunday, but it wasn’t enough in a 115-108 loss.

With the Northwestern Division wrapped up on Friday night, Denver rested three key members of the roster in Nikola Jokić, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray. The Nuggets would remain competitive with the Western Conference’s fourth best team thanks to Gary Harris and Trey Lyles.

Harris led the Nuggets with 18 points and two steals, while Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 30 points and six rebounds. This was an important game for Harris, who has struggled with his shooting touch since returning to the lineup in January. Against Portland on Sunday, Harris looked like the player he was last season, where he was emerging as one of the top two-way threats in the NBA and averaged 17.5 points a game. It was his most points scored since Nov. 30 against Portland, a game which he poured in 27 points.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone praised Harris’ performance after the game.

“One of the things that I was really hoping would happen tonight was getting Gary into a rhythm, getting him some confidence,” Malone said. “The way that Gary was attacking the basket tonight and finishing, that was great to see. Hopefully that can continue in these last two [games] and into the postseason.”

The Nuggets shooting guard was pivotal on both sides of the floor on Sunday and sparked the team’s strong showing in the second half. Denver entered the third quarter trailing 60-49, but Harris immediately made his presence felt, forcing two turnovers and scoring nine points in the quarter. Lyles would also make several key plays in the third, including a steal and a three-point play late in the quarter. The Nuggets would outscore the home team 32-26 in the third quarter.

When the Nuggets struggled to get going in the first half as the team trying to figure out things offensively, Lyles kept things from getting out of hand by scoring 10 points – including 2-of-3 from downtown. He would finish the game with 15 points and nine rebounds on 50 percent shooting.

Malone would go with his reserves in the fourth quarter and the team continued to show its determination and relentlessness in the final 12 minutes despite the final result. Denver would take a seven-point lead as Torrey Craig, Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangómez played significant roles. Craig wreaked havoc on both sides of the floor, frustrating Lillard on almost every possession and made dagger after dagger as he hit 3-of-3 from downtown. Plumlee made two big blocks and Juancho would hit a three to give the Nuggets a 104-98 lead. Craig’s recent emergence is definitely something to keep an eye on heading into the postseason.

“Overall, you know what you’re going to get every night from Torrey,” Malone said. “You’re going to get great defense and offer great versatility on that side of the floor. Offensively, his cutting and movement without the ball and ability to hit shots, like he did tonight, makes him a valuable weapon for us.”

Malone added, “Torrey is a big part of what we’re trying to do now and in the future.”

Yet, the Blazers would get back into the game after a foul was called on Plumlee on Lillard at three-point line. That was Plumlee’s fifth foul and he would subsequently foul out moments. The play would spark a 16-1 run against the visitors and Portland would take a 112-106 lead. Without Plumlee or Harris on the floor during the stretch, Denver had no answers defensively and couldn’t get going offensively as they settled for long range shots and couldn’t hit important free throws.

Without Jokić and Millsap, the Nuggets struggled in the first half in points in the paint (38-18) – a significant reason why the team played from behind for most of the game. The size advantage also hurt Denver in rebounds as the hosts had a 58-42 advantage. The Nuggets did show improvement from behind the arc as they shot 39.4 from downtown, but their struggles at the charity stripe was costly as the team shot 11-of-20.

“The biggest thing with this game is we didn’t rebound, that’s the story of the game,” Malone said. “They had 17 offensive rebounds for 22 second chance points…We did a poor job of that all night long. That and missed free throws are probably the two biggest reasons why we lost the game.”

The Nuggets now travel to Salt Lake City to face the Jazz at 7 p.m. MT(TV: ALTITUDE RADIO: KKSE-FM 92.5/KKSE 950)

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