Heading into Game 3 of the Portland Trail Blazers-Denver Nuggets first-round series, there were headlines aplenty.
How would Damian Lillard respond to Aaron Gordon? Could the Blazers keep the Nuggets out of the paint? Would the Nuggets shut down the Blazers at the three-point line again?
But another storyline played out on Thursday night at Moda Center, and it was one nobody was talking about until the game’s conclusion. His name was Austin Rivers.
With 5:55 left in the fourth quarter, a time when the clock typically strikes Lillard Time, it was Rivers who responded when he launched four 3s in the final minutes, finishing the game with 21 points, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter.
As several fans on Twitter coined it, it was “the Austin Rivers game.”
“He made clutch threes,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after the game. “The game was going, it was close. He made one when, I don’t know if both of them, but the shot clock was running down, so obviously those were big shots in the fourth quarter.”
Rivers was traded at the NBA’s trade deadline from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of a three-team deal. He was subsequently waived. After sitting at home for a month-and-a-half waiting for a team to give him an opportunity, the phone rang. It was the Nuggets on the other end of the line.
"I just put my faith in God, having conversations with myself, talking to God like, 'What's the plan? What's going to happen?'" Rivers said Thursday night. "All the feedback I kept getting is, a lot of teams liked me but they didn't know what type of character I was and how I'd be in their locker room. My basketball ability was never questioned, it was who I was as a person. Which is actually even worse.
"Truthfully it broke my heart. Because I know who I am.”
The Nuggets first added Rivers on a 10-day deal on April 20 before signing him for the rest of the season following Jamal Murray’s torn ACL. On Thursday night, he showed not only Denver, but all of Portland why.
“He was on fire,” Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo said. “He was great all game, but especially the fourth quarter. ... That is very important for us. We are not going to win this game without him.”
Rivers wasn't the only Nuggets player knocking down threes. Denver was a collective 20-of-38 from distance with Nikola Jokic (4), Michael Porter Jr. (3) and Campazzo (2) all adding to their total.
"I think the major key was how well they shot from three-point compared to how we shot from the three-point line," Damian Lillard said. "It's a make or miss league and today in this league, everybody's shooting a lot of threes, and the team that's hot from three, usually comes out on top, especially if the other team isn't matching that effort from the three-point line."
As the Blazers begin preparations for Game 4, they’ll have more to worry about than defending Rivers and the three-point line. After dropping two-straight games, Portland trails 2-1 in the series making Saturday almost a must-win game for the Blazers before the series shifts back to Denver.
“It’s a game we need to win,” CJ McCollum said. “We needed to win tonight, obviously, but we didn’t. It’s going to be a long series. It’s just not going to be easy but we gotta go fight and take advantage of a home game before we go back on the road.”