In a matchup that spared no blows, it was the Nuggets who were the victors in a scrappy 128-109 Game 2 win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The tone of the second game of the Western Conference first round was set early as Michael Porter Jr. responded to a nudge by Jusuf Nurkic with a shove, earning a technical foul. While it was a controversial moment for both sides, it appeared to fire up a Nuggets team that desperately needed a spark after a disappointing playoff opener. From that point on, it was clear both sides would be aggressive and play physical in a crucial contest for both teams – especially for Denver. The shorthanded Nuggets could ill-afford to travel to Portland with a 0-2 deficit and try to rally from that point.
Feeding off another boisterous, capacity crowd at Ball Arena, the Nuggets would build a 12-point rally heading into halftime. Despite several rally attempts by the visitors, Denver would hold Portland to secure the win.
"That right there was a playoff game for both teams. The intensity, you had two high-level players in Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic playing at their respective levels," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "The crowd was great, big shoutout to our crowd making this such a tough place to play. But it was chippy, and that's the way it should be. We're both fighting for something and that's the way the playoffs should be. I loved it, that's my kind of game right there."
Nikola Jokić continued to raise his game to another level in the postseason and led the Nuggets once again with 38 points, eight rebounds, five assists on 75 percent shooting. Damian Lillard was magnificent in the first half, setting a new NBA playoff record in the first half threes with eight. He would finish the contest with 42 points and 10 assists.
The Nuggets will now travel to Portland looking to gain the series lead and regain homecourt advantage. Game 3 will take place Thursday (ALTITUDE, NBA TV, 8:30 p.m. MT).
Here are the takeaways:
Shaq’s huge play
Shaquille Harrison played 10 minutes and scored one field goal, but his play late in the second quarter might have shifted the momentum of Game 2. Time will tell if the moment has bigger implications.
Lillard was on a surge for the ages in the opening 24 minutes of the contest, pouring in 32 points during that stretch. Most of the damage was done in the second quarter, where the Nuggets seemingly had no answers for the Blazers star who dropped 22 in that quarter. Then Harrison came in.
The guard immediately took on the challenge of guarding Lillard and immediately frustrated Portland’s leading man. Harrison took on Lillard from full-court and allowed zero space. Lillard fell to the hardwood before passing out to CJ McCollum. It fired up the Ball Arena faithful, who erupted after the play. That’s how good Harrison was on that possession.
"We always talked to these players about staying ready, and Shaq Harrison played about one minute and 15 seconds in that first half and had a huge impact," Malone said.
Lillard had a first-half explosion but was held relatively quiet in the final 24 minutes – putting up 10 points on 2 of 9 shooting in that span. Harrison was the spark of that turnaround.
Defense steps up
Outside of Lillard’s monster first half, Denver deserves a lot of credit for making the necessary adjustments to slow Portland’s offense.
In Game 1, the Nuggets did a good job of largely keeping Portland stars Lillard and McCollum quiet throughout the contest. It was the production of the Blazers’ role players which ultimately proved backbreaking. That was quickly addressed Monday.
Carmelo Anthony and Anfernee Simons combined for 32 points Sunday, they would muster eight in Game 2. Portland’s bench was held to just 21 points and the team never had a lead bigger than three, which it secured in the first minute of the contest.
McCollum might have shot 9 of 12, but he was largely contained in the first half and had five turnovers on the night. He was -23 on the night.
Jokić had another MVP-caliber night, but it was a step up in production from his teammates which made the difference. The Nuggets had six players in double-figures (Jokić, Michael Porter Jr., Facundo Campazzo, Paul Millsap, Monte Morris, and Aaron Gordon) and that was a byproduct of improved cutting and ball movement Monday night.
"I think if you're going to talk about it, then you're not going to do it; you just need to do it. We have a saying, ‘the dog who barks, doesn't bite’. We just need to go out there and bite. That was the feeling on the court, we never gave up even when Dame [Damian Lillard] started to get going, we stayed together and were fighting through and we won the game," Jokić said of the win.
The Nuggets had 29 dimes, a jump from the 22 they had Saturday. More importantly, although Porter had a 5 of 13 shooting night, other players stepped up – especially downtown. The Nuggets had five players who hit two or more threes against the Blazers. The team also heeded Michael Malone’s call to get to the line more. Forty-eight hours after shooting just eight free throws, the team went 30 times in Game 2 and hit 24.
“We just knew our sense of urgency had to be better. We didn't want to go down to Portland 2-0. We came out with great energy from the jump and was able to get the job done tonight," Morris said.