DENVER – Didn’t that look a lot more like the Trail Blazer team that took care of the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games? Hard-nosed. physical. Aggressive.
Yes. That's it.
Portland found its defensive ferocity and physical presence again Wednesday night and it paid off in a 97-90 win over the Denver Nuggets that squared their second-round playoff series at a game apiece, heading back to Portland for the next two games.
The Blazers didn’t shoot well but the Nuggets were worse. Much worse. Denver made just 6 of its 29 shots from three-point range while the Blazers hit 9 of 29. And Denver's Nikola Jokic, who was a monster in Game 1, was held to just 16 points on 7-17 shooting.
The Blazers threw double- and even triple-teams at him and in general, did what they’ve been saying they wanted to do -- take him out of his comfort zone and make things more difficult for him.
“I think it’s not just how they play me,” Jokic said. “They were aggressive as a team, as a group. It was a weird game for us. They didn’t even play that good, to be honest.
“They can play better than that. It was kind of a weird game where they were more aggressive than we were.”
Jokic knew exactly what happened. The Trail Blazers were the aggressors and that’s so important in the NBA.
“Just being the aggressors,” said Maurice Harkless, who was forced out of the game mid-second quarter with an ankle sprain. “Enes (Kanter) did a great job and so did Zach (Collins) when he came in. Just not reacting and making Jokic react to what they did.
“Defensively, you’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to see what you can get away with. Tonight, we were physical and they let us play physical tonight.
“We did a great job of executing. You know, just not having him be comfortable when he catches the ball, or when he’s trying to pass the ball, just keep pressure on him and just making him make tough decisions.
“They stayed with him all night and so did Chief when he had him. Try not to let him get anything easy and not let him get going.
“We were applying pressure all night. Being aggressive allows us to play so much more free. When you’re aggressive you’re not reacting, you’re making things happen. And that’s the way we have to be every night.
“I felt we were way more aggressive tonight and we got way fewer foul calls.”
Denver Coach Mike Malone was very specific in his appraisal: “Not to oversimplify it, but it’s a make-or-miss league. We couldn’t make a shot.
“We played good defense, we outrebounded them by 11, we didn’t get hurt with points off turnovers, but couldn’t make a damn shot.”
Even the easy ones.
The Nuggets made only 25 of 57 shots in the paint and just 8 of 24 second-chance shots. And when you’re as bad from three-point range as they were, it’s a blueprint for a loss. Like he said, it's a make-or-miss league.
Portland led by as many as 17, getting points from everywhere. Damian Lillard, swarmed by constant double teams, had a very rare off-night shooting the ball, going 5-17 and 1-7 from three. But CJ McCollum was reliable late in the game and finished with 20 points and six assists. Kanter had 15 points, as did Rodney Hood, in his second straight big game off the bench. Collins made 5-6 from the field and had six rebounds as well as a promising game at the defensive end.
“I really liked our approach in the first half, particularly in the first quarter,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “Defensively, we were much better than Game One. Much better on the ball and didn’t give them all the easy things they got last game.
“I thought we sustained it really well in the first half. In the third quarter, too many fouls and the fourth quarter too many offensive rebounds by them.
“But I liked the tone we set early in the game,”
Kanter – “He’s tough as nails,” Harkless said -- had another strong night, standing tall against Jokic and scoring 15 points with nine rebounds. And he was involved in a bit of an altercation with 43 seconds left in the game. But let him explain it:
“It was not my fault,” he said. “If you watch the replay, Jokic literally pushed me into his teammate and I hit him and I turned around, he was on the ground and they started getting in my face and I didn’t do anything – he pushed me into him.
“I like that. It’s what the playoffs are all about. Just go out there and give everything you have. You either win or you go home.”
The Blazers went home after the game and Denver set out for PDX about the same time. Games Friday and Sunday await.
And so the battle continues. On the Trail Blazers’ home battlefield.