Some nights in the NBA, rested and energetic bench players are better than tired starters.
Go ask the Los Angeles Lakers, who helped the Trail Blazers cut their magic number for homecourt advantage to one by knocking off the Utah Jazz Sunday night. Or maybe even ask the Blazers, after they barely escaped the attack of the Denver Nuggets’ reserves in Moda Center.
The Blazers, trailing the Nuggets – who were without three of their top players – 105-98 with four minutes to go Sunday, but scored 17 of the game’s final 20 points to beat Denver 115-108.
And if not for Nugget Coach Mike Malone’s decision to use Isaiah Thomas for 23:48, including the entire fourth quarter, Denver would have most likely won the game.
Thomas – Portland’s Most Valuable Player, if you don’t mind – missed 10 of his 14 shots, four of his five threes and had no rebounds and just three assists.
The poor guy was playing in just his 11th game of the season and obviously wasn’t prepared for fourth-quarter duty.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I really liked the way we finished,” said Portland Coach Terry Stotts, picking out the only portion of the game he probably could have liked. “We made a lot of energy plays in the last two to three minutes to pull away.
“I thought Denver played with a lot of energy. Their second unit plays really well. They play hard together. They made some shots. I thought they outworked us for a good part of the game, especially in the second half. They got energy plays, the offensive rebounds, things like that, but we made the plays when we needed to down the stretch.”
CJ McCollum made it back in the lineup and played 24:39. Portland’s other starting guard, Damian Lillard, played 37:36, scoring 30 points on 9-19 shooting, including 5-11 from long range.
Stotts has made clear he has no interest in resting players until he has homecourt advantage locked up, which is close after the Utah loss. All the Trail Blazers need in the remaining three days of the season is one win or a Jazz loss.
Getting McCollum back was obviously a big plus for Portland.
“It’s great, because when he went down – I think he missed like 10 or 11 games – and to get him back and the way we played when he was out, a lot of guys had to step up and do a little bit more,” Lillard said. “I think the fact that it went well, it gave a lot of guys more confidence, It gave us other guys who we can turn to when we do get to the postseason who feel good about themselves.
“The trust is there because not only we believe in them as players but we went through it, having him go down and having Nurk go down, so I think it worked out just fine for us.”
The dynamics of basketball and the NBA make for some amazing outcomes. At this point of the season, all teams are worn down from the 82-game grind. Energy is at a premium and sometimes the big-minute players just don’t have it.
The Nuggets played Sunday without Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray – three starters, one of whom is an MVP candidate. And they very nearly could have won the game, even though their high scorer for the night, Gary Harris, didn't play in the final quarter.
In Los Angeles, the Lakers played without LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart – and upset the Jazz in what was almost a must-win game for Utah.
Resting players doesn’t always guarantee a loss at this point of the season. Sometimes fresh players are the best players.