The Portland Trail Blazers opened up their 50th NBA season carrying an 18-game home opener win streak, good for best in the NBA. Sadly, that league leading streak would come to an end in a hard fought battle against their divisional rival and league darlings, the Denver Nuggets.
Things got off to a great start for Portland, with Nikola Jokic getting three quick whistles and being forced to ride the pine early. During that stretch, the Blazers were able to hang with the Nuggets - despite their hot 3-point shooting - behind solid defensive contributions from Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside, carrying a heavy burden for the Blazers with his reputation as an uninterested malcontent, patrolled the lane admirably and feasted on put backs. Zach Collins showed his defensive chops chasing Paul Millsap around the perimeter while showcasing a silky smooth jumper on the offensive end. If you were to mix those two factors in with the typically always consistent Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum than you would imagine that the Blazers would be up big and early on the Nuggets. But the stars for the Blazers had yet to truly show up.
Blazers 27, Nuggets 24 after 1.
When the bench checked in is when Portland got its first true look at it’s backups and newcomers that will be heavily featured this season. It wasn’t pretty. Anfrenee Simons, the highly touted 20 year old out of IMG that single handedly changed the landscape of the Western Conference in Game 82 of the 2018-2019 season, took over the ball handling duties. He played with all the ability of a nervous nun who had way too many things to say during confession - minus an extremely sick dunk in the open court.
Mario Hezonja, the newest crown bearer of “Portland's Favorite Niche Player,” seemed to play down to his competition and didn’t exhibit any of the flashy playmaking skills or full speed, full court drives that he showcased during the preseason. Anthony Tolliver, brought in for his 3-point marksmanship, ended the night taking only a single shot and missing. The lone bright spot for Portland’s bench was Skal Labissiere, a player who two months ago didn’t figure to see the court out of garbage time. He finished with only a -3 plus/minus off the bench, best for the bunch.
Nuggets 54, Blazers 50 at the half.
At this point in the game, most people watching were probably expecting Dame to take his foot off of the assist pedal and to firmly stomp down on the scoring pedal. They would be half right. Dame put his imprint on the game, not with deep threes from Woodburn, but with nifty drives to the basket. He was either getting layups or free throws. But he was also still trying to get his teammates engaged, as a good leader wants to do. The downside to this master plan was that not a lot of his teammates were hitting shots or making smart decisions with the ball. CJ McCollum in particular, normally a ninja with the ball in his hands, failed to create off the dribble for most of the evening. Kent Bazermore, coming off one of his worst 3-point shooting seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, continued his pre-season trend of failing to hit water while falling out of a boat. He was a goose egg from deep on the night. Things were not looking good for the home team and angry Stotts got ample camera time. The only bright spots for the Blazers in the quarter were the biggest question marks coming into the season; Whiteside and Collins. Collins didn’t back down from a single challenge on either end of the court and Whiteside ate up rebounds like he was feasting on the Voodoo donuts he had been handing out on the streets of Portland in the offseason. If not for those two and their excellent defense and ability to rebound and score on putbacks, the Blazers would have died a horrible early death. Instead, they had a sliver of hope heading into the 4th.
Blazers 74, Nuggets 73.
A lot can be said for star players taking over a close game against a fierce opponent. That is when they are expected to put the team on their shoulders and exhibit all the traits of an All-Star caliber player and carry their team to victory. For the Blazers, they got to witness such a feat first hand in Jokic and Murray. Both of the Nuggets star players seemed to hit pause on all of their offensive possessions and make the smart read. The Nuggets jumped out to an early lead and never really looked back as CJ and Dame appeared to force the issue. Without any tried and true screen setters, their pick and roll games looked lackadaisical. Their shots were forced. The ball movement stagnant. On the other side of the court, Jokic and Murray were calm and collected in how they wanted each and every possession to play out. They showed the true traits of a winning team.
When the final whistle blew, the Nuggets didn’t celebrate and run around the court like the Blazers did during the Divisional Round of last year’s playoffs. Instead, they calmly walked off the court after exchanging hugs and fistbumps, like a team that knows what it needs to do to win consistently. The Blazers walked off with their heads hung and wondering how they can make this roster and it’s individually talented players gel and get back to the Western Conference Finals.
Nuggets 108, Blazers 100
Here’s hoping that they can figure it out sooner rather than later as they head out on a four game road trip.