Jusuf Nurkic was dunking everything he possibly could, Gary Trent Jr. continued his torrid Orlando restart campaign and Damian Lillard had a career shooting night even by his own lofty standards.
And yet 45 minutes into the game, the Trail Blazers still hadn’t put away the shorthanded Denver Nuggets. Before tip-off the Nuggets had ruled out Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap, and in the fourth quarter Denver coach Mike Malone elected to keep All-Star Nikola Jokic on the bench and let the back half of the rotation get a chance at taking down the Blazers.
It nearly worked. Despite the 45 points and career-high tying 11 three-pointers from Damian Lillard, and Jusuf Nurkic throwing down six dunks, including a viral highlight over Bol Bol in the first half, the Blazers couldn’t ever quite pull away enough to get comfortable.
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Not until Gary Trent Jr., who finished with another absurd statline of 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including seven made three-pointers, drilled a shot from behind the arc with three minutes to go in the game.
We knew that they had a lot of their main guys out. But in the NBA, over my career I’ve learned that those are the most dangerous nights when you come out there thinking it’s going to be an easy game. — Damian Lillard
HIGHLIGHT: Lillard and Trent Jr. go off on the Nuggets pic.twitter.com/JSvJqx54Q1— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) August 7, 2020
This didn’t look like an instance of the Blazers not taking an opponent seriously. The Nuggets still had talent on the floor in Jokic, who played three quarters and rookie Michael Porter Jr., who played deep into the fourth. More accurately, this is a reminder of how challenging the Blazers playoff push remains. Even on a night where they faced a team riddled with injuries that benched its best player down the stretch, the Blazers still needed a Herculean night from their star and a whole lot of offensive help from the supporting cast.
Portland looks better in Orlando than at any other point in the season. Probably better than a typical eighth seed, even if that’s the highest spot they can earn through four more seeding games. However, their flaws are obvious. They still aren’t a particularly good defensive group, even if they look sharper at times on that end.
More importantly for them, they’re 3-1 and things outside of their control have broken their way for most part. Memphis is winless in four games in Orlando and lost starting power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. to a knee injury. Sacramento and New Orleans have sputtered in their restarts as well, leaving the Blazers alone in ninth place just a half game back of Memphis for the eighth seed and a 1.5 games clear of the surging Phoenix Suns.
The highlights were pretty, even if the scoreboard never really matched it. But the Blazers don’t need to earn style points for margin victory, that’s not what they’re after anyway.
“We did what we needed to do. Some people might say, ‘Aww they didn’t play anybody’,” Lillard said, anticipating the criticism from the above paragraphs before they hit the keyboard. “But for us we’re not going to apologize for a win. We’re here to just get it done. Teams have lost those games and I’m just happy we were able to pull ours out.”
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