7 takeaways from the Trail Blazers’ tough battle against the Nuggets
Even in the midst of their best week of the 2023-24 regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers will not be expected to beat the reigning NBA champion Denver Nuggets. Denver wins titles. Portland wins about 33% of its games. These two things are not the same thing.
Instead, Friday night’s game answered a basic question: What do a growing and recently resurgent Blazers team look like when faced with excellence? As it turns out, well… maybe? But it’s not really dangerous. Portland fell behind early, got back into the fray during a furious second period, then watched Denver play them the rest of the evening.
The distance between Portland and goodness is vast. The distance between this franchise and serious contention can only be measured on a scale that only future lottery players can bridge.
Despite losing 120-108, we can still benefit from a lot of things in the match. The Nuggets were like one of those medical tests where they bathe your insides in dye and then scan you to light up all the problem spots. Portland had a lot of flaws, but some bright spots emerged through them.
If you missed the event, you can find our quarterly recap here. Then, here are the other things that matter.
Even though they were the more experienced team, the Nuggets moved faster than the Blazers. They beat Portland in transition early, then slowed the game down to preserve their lead. They probably could have run all night if they wanted to.
This remains a sore point for the Blazers. Portland is not only younger than most opponents, but smaller. It stands to reason that they would be faster. It doesn’t work that way most nights.
The only exception came in a glorious second quarter where the Blazers were able to get quick drives down the lane repeatedly. Scott Henderson thrived in that environment and Portland closed the scoreboard gap with a championship. But they couldn’t keep it up.
How bad is it? Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was hitting the Blazers on the floor and dunking. “Dunking” and “KCP” belong in the same sentence as “Deep-Fried Bacon” and “Heart-Healthy Diet.” But here we are.
Back to basics
The story wasn’t always better in the half-court. Denver got easy shots from basic pick-and-roll sets frequently. If the Blazers don’t make the trade, they will inevitably find a player out of position. If they did, they would have had to make do with the guards trying to defend Nikola Jokic. They’ve swapped a lot. Disastrous.
It’s not like the Nuggets ran a complex play as Portland shuffled the ball and then turned it over, only to find their weakest defender isolated on the ball. The main cast in each Denver group usually finds a great opportunity. If not, they would have kicked one of three open. The turns, both to the ball and to the bow, were as slow as molasses in a refrigerator.
Portland’s problem wasn’t a specific defender. It was the same defense. Denver shot 50.5% from the field tonight, another generous gift from Portland to the opposition.
Nowhere were Portland’s defensive issues more evident than in the “allowed aid” rule. Denver recorded 34 assists on 46 field goals. Denver trades on a sleek offense anyway, but the Blazers have allowed them to hone it into refined excellence.
Make a point
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Portland. Their twin keepers – Malcolm Brogdon and Scott Henderson – have acquitted themselves well. Brogdon opened proceedings, driving right into the teeth of the Denver defense, absorbing contact, and scoring. “Wait,” Henderson said. “That’s allowed?” He was off to the races. The Denver doesn’t handle hard, sustained driving well.
Brogdon and Henderson kept the Blazers connected against an opponent that could have easily destroyed them. They played a strong, physical attack when they could have just as easily hung back and called it a night.
Henderson led the Blazers with 30 points on 8-15 shooting, 3-7 from the arc, and 11-12 from the foul line. Leadership pays off. Brogdon added 11 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists.
Anfernee Simmons didn’t bring the ball in the first half tonight, but he torched the Nuggets in the third. His triple step back and J pull were great. He scored six field goals, three of them from long range, in the third alone en route to 29 points on 11-23 shooting, 4-10 from the arc.
However, the Blazers have a recurring problem. Whenever the opponent tightens his control over the ant, he stops in isolation. Scoring stops for him and the team until the pressure is relieved or the offense goes in another direction. Pressuring Simmons remains the No. 1 most bankable way to stop the Blazers. It works more every time.
You already know how good Nikola Jokic is, but he was playing some next level chess in this game. Let’s be honest. He could have scored 40 points without thinking. Instead, he only took — total shots. It wasn’t negative at all. Instead, he was opting for all the fun and fancy ways to brand the jackets.
Example: Fairly early in the third period. Jokic had a mismatch against Brogdon off the switch. It was about a foot tall and a few light years’ talent on smaller cannons. Jokic could have scored in any of six ways. Instead, he passed the ball back to Jamal Murray, the other player in the pair who caused the mismatch in the first place. Murray made a move with a big jab, drawing Brogdon, Jabari Walker to him, trying to stop the drive. When Murray stepped back for a three, Jokic rolled toward the bucket. Murray missed the double-covered shot, but Jokic got an unchallenged rebound, gathered himself, then laid the ball off the backboard for an easy layup. Not content with overcoming man-coverage, Joker insisted on scoring into his own net no coverage. The only thing that would foil his plan is that Murray actually hit all three…the consolation prize of a 150% payout. majestic.
Jokic recorded a triple-double with 27 points, 23 rebounds and 12 assists while shooting 11-16 from the floor.
I don’t even know how to describe the joker, except to say that someone doubts that Denver could have served him up and four traffic cones and still beat the Blazers tonight.
The result is square
The Blazers will face the same Nuggets at 5:30 PM PT on Sunday. Let’s see if they change their defensive style.