The Blazers entered halftime on Wednesday night with Damian Lillard hitting just two of his first eight shots while C.J. McCollum went 2-9 from the field. Yet the Blazers finished the first 24 minutes up 15 points, leading 50-35 as the Nuggets clanked a stream of jumpers. Portland continued to struggle from the field the second half—including a 9–29 mark from three—but Denver’s continued brick fest allowed Lillard and Co. to escape the Pepsi Center with a 97-90 victory. For all of the Nuggets’ defensive deficiencies, it was the other end of the floor that cost them Game 2.
It’s tempting to diagnose Denver’s early difficulties as simply landing on the wrong side of the make-or-miss matrix. But the excuse obscures the heart of the Nuggets’ problems following a 97-90 defeat to tie the Western Conference semifinals at one game apiece. As the series heads back to Portland, Denver desperately needs a heavier dose of Nikola Jokic.
Don’t let the Serbian center’s doughy exterior fool you; Jokic is a capital-S star, a potential first-team All-NBA center unless the honor goes to Joel Embiid. We don’t need a reminder of his greatness, we saw it in Game 1. Jokic erupted for 37 points and nine rebounds, making 11-18 shots along with a perfect 12-12 effort from the foul line. The Joker tip-toe’d past Enes Kanter and bullied Zach Collins, feasting as the fulcrum of Denver’s attack. Portland has nowhere close to the personnel to stop Jokic without Jusuf Nurkic. The Nuggets have to let the big fella eat.
We saw Jokic at his best in spurts in Game 2. He was a menace off the pick-and-roll, destroying defenses in the 4-on-3 as though he was a slow-motion Draymond Green. His glacial euro-step froze Kanter in the second quarter. Jokic nutmegged Al-Farouq Aminu in the third quarter for perhaps the prettiest dime of the playoffs. Jokic didn’t shoot great on Wednesday, ending the night 7-17 from the field. But the latter number is the true problem. Jamal Murray made just six of 18 attempts and went 2-for-8 from three, spending part of the second half trying to loosen his knee on the exercise bike. The perimeter options for Denver failed to deliver at home. Relying on them to pick up the slack in Portland is a shoddy bet.
The Blazers should feel as though they are leaving Mile High with a bit of a stolen win. Lillard scored just 14 points on 5-of-17 made field goals on Wednesday and Portland converted just nine triples. Denver won the turnover battle, too. But 6–29 from three won’t cut it, even in friendly confines. A similar performance at the Moda Center will result in a blowout.
Denver dismissed the questions regarding their two-seed credentials with a win over Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in round one, yet a quick exit against Portland will ground a potentially massive leap for the franchise. Portland is home to one of the league’s most hostile crowds, and the Nuggets are in serious danger of a 3–1 deficit when the series returns from Denver. Murray and Gary Harris are quality guards, and the former made a significant leap this season. The Nuggets’ season doesn’t lie on the perimeter, though. Jokic will need to seize control to keep Denver in the series, deviating from his unselfish nature to carry the load in Game 3.