Paul Millsap

What beat Blazers?: Defense? Rebounds? Bench? 3-point shooting? Or just effort?

What beat Blazers?: Defense? Rebounds? Bench? 3-point shooting? Or just effort?

If you knew ahead of time that Hassan Whiteside was going to outscore All-NBA center Nikola Jokic 35-20 and Carmelo Anthony would outscore Blazer killer Paul Millsap 20-6, wouldn’t you figure that the Trail Blazers would have a shot at defeating the Denver Nuggets, who were on a three-game losing streak?

Well, no. But I think you would have thought they wouldn’t lose by 15.

But that’s what happened in Denver Thursday night, when Portland was drubbed 114-99.

And like so many NBA games, it all turned on three-point shooting. The Trail Blazers shot a solid 47.7 percent from the field but just 30 percent from three (9-30) while Denver connected on 50 percent of its threes (18-36). In other words, the Blazers were outscored by 27 points from distance

That’s especially lethal when you’re getting pounded 15-7 on the offensive boards.

It was a game the Trail Blazers were in on all the way to the end of the third quarter, when they went into zombie mode. With 2:47 left in the period they trailed just 79-78. But the Nuggets rattled off the final 10 points of the quarter and never looked back.

Part of that can be blamed on the Portland bench, which played a total of 62 minutes and scored just nine points – all of them by one man, Anfernee Simons.

But the starters could be blamed, too. The Trail Blazers got a solid 62 points from their starting frontcourt of Anthony, Whiteside and Kent Bazemore but a combined 28 from their starting guards, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who were averaging 48.8 per game coming into this one.

“I know Whiteside hurt us,” Denver Coach Mike Malone said. “But when you can hold that backcourt, Portland’s starting backcourt, to 28 points (and) only three free-throw attempts… I thought our defense on Dame and CJ was terrific.”

And while holding down Portland’s guards, the Nuggets were piling up the threes at the other end.

“A lot like Game 1 (of the season) they made 18 threes and they made 18 threes tonight,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts said. “To me, that was the difference in the game. Some of it was on us as far as leaving shooters and not contesting as much and some of it was on them for moving the ball and finding the open man.”

Lillard said, “We just didn’t have enough pressure on the ball. We let them get too comfortable out there. They’re a passing team. If we had had more energy and effort, like I said after the last game, we could have limited what they do. But we were back on our heels.”

This Trail Blazer season is going south fast. Energy and effort have been an issue recently and you have to worry about it becoming a chronic problem.

The Halloween candy was still in the wrapper the last time Portland beat a team with a record above .500. The Trail Blazers are now 1-9 vs. teams with a plus-.500 record – and that win was on Oct. 27.

 


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Nuggets looking to stop the Blazers' pick-and-roll action in Game 2

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USA Today Images

Nuggets looking to stop the Blazers' pick-and-roll action in Game 2

DENVER – As the Nuggets prepare for Game 2 against the Trail Blazers, there is one key adjustment they’re planning on making.

After Denver’s morning shootaround Wednesday, both backup center Mason Plumlee and starting power forward Paul Millsap discussed the change the Nuggets plan to make.

“Our pick-and-roll defense. They ran a lot of pick-and-rolls, and then we put Dame on the free throw line a lot in the second half. There’s room for improvement that’s for sure,” Plumlee said.

Millsap added, “Being up on their pick-and-rolls, that’s the main thing, just trying to stop them, their pick-and-roll action, they just do so much of it, trying to make it to our spots.”

Of course, the Nuggets weren’t about to give away their gameplan though.

“I can’t tell you the plan, but I can say we gotta do better on it, but that’s about it,” Millsap joked.

As for what the Nuggets expect to see from the Blazers and their adjustments, Denver feels most of the focus will be on how they defend big man Nikola Jokic.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they double Joker a little more,” Plumlee said.

Jokic finished with 37 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in Game 1 on Monday night.

All season long, Jokic has lead this young Denver team; a team that won its seven-game-series with the Spurs and then took Game 1 at home against the Blazers, 121-113.

Heading into Game 2, the Nuggets’ confidence is pretty high or as Plumlee said, their confidence is “steady.”

“I would just say steady…. Obviously, we started this series better than the last one, but if we don’t win tonight it doesn’t mean anything. So, we’re just even kill and ready for a good game,” Plumlee said.    

Millsap feels this team is confident in their series against the Blazers because of how Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has prepared them.

“We go through every play in shoot-around, every play in the playbook. So, he’s definitely big on preparation… Being prepared is one of those things that if you know that you’re fully prepared and you go through every thing you can accept whatever happens,” Millsap said.

“That’s why I’m confident in our group – we are well prepared from all angles. We touch every base, so we leave no stone unturned,” Millsap added.

It sounds like it’s the battle of confidence and adjustments heading into Game 2 of this best-of-seven-game-series.

Trail Blazers keep surging with blowout of the Hawks in Atlanta

Trail Blazers keep surging with blowout of the Hawks in Atlanta

ATLANTA – The Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the season and even before Portland demolished Atlanta 113-97 on Saturday, Damian Lillard knew why the team is surging.

“We understand this is when we have to make our push,’’ Lillard said at the team’s practice on Friday. “This is our last opportunity to get to the postseason, that’s why you are seeing the focus we have. This is it. We want to play in the postseason, so this is what it is: You either do it, or you don’t.’’

Behind Lillard, the Blazers lately have the look of a team that is playoff bound.

Lillard continued his torrid post-All-Star pace with 27 points, which included 13 in  the game-deciding first quarter, when the Blazers blitzed Atlanta by making their first seven shots while jumping to a 17-3 lead.

The lead ballooned to as many as 23 in the first quarter before the Blazers settled for a 40-18 advantage, and from there on out the closest Atlanta got was 11 early in the fourth.

Lillard is averaging 29.8 points since the All-Star Break, second highest in the NBA behind Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook (35.1), and his play has spearheaded the Blazers’ 8-4 record since the break, which has included wins in seven of the last nine.

That surge has separated Portland (31-37) from Dallas, Minnesota and New Orleans as Denver’s prime contender for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. With 14 games left, the Blazers are 1.5 games behind Denver after the Nuggets lost 109-105 at home to Houston.    

Heading into the five-game trip finale on Sunday in Miami, Lillard said the Blazers have to adopt an unfamiliar trait:

"I think we need to not be happy about what we've accomplish in the first four games,'' Lillard said. "I think our mentality needs to be greedy.''

The late-season rally has been more than just Lillard, as evidenced by Saturday’s performance, which bordered on spectacular for long stretches and included all five starters scoring in double figures.

CJ McCollum had 22 points, six rebounds and five assists and Jusuf Nurkic continued to be a revelation in Portland, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five blocks. His inside presence on defense and his exuberance and craftiness on the court has been one of the biggest subplots to the resurgence.         

Meanwhile, Noah Vonleh continued his solid March with his first double-double of the season (10 points, 11 rebounds) and Allen Crabbe continued to become more of a factor, on Saturday finishing with four three-pointers and 16 points,.

Maurice Harkless made a case to keep his starting small forward position despite Saturday’s return of Evan Turner from a broken hand. Harkless finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists while Turner played 20 minutes in his return and finished with two points, eight rebounds and three assists.

Atlanta (37-32) lost its third straight and played without All-Star forward Paul Millsap, who was a late scratch because of left knee tightness. Ersan Ilyasova started in his place and led the Hawks with 23 points and Dwight Howard had 14 points and 10 rebounds, the 11th consecutive game he has had at least 10 rebounds. 

The Blazers jumped to a stunning start, which not surprisingly was led by Lillard. The Blazers made their first seven shots to take a 17-3 lead, and Lillard scored nine of the team’s first 11 points, which included a four-point play.

Portland led by as many as 23 in the first quarter at 35-12 and led 40-18 heading into the second quarter.

Notes: Portland ended a five-game losing streak to Atlanta … Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder had a miserable game, finishing 2-for-14 from the field and finishing with eight points and seven assists.

Next up: Blazers at Miami, 3 p.m. Sunday (CSN)

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