What a win.
The Denver Nuggets, mirroring their series against the San Antonio Spurs, win Game 5 against the Portland Trail Blazers 124-98 to take a 3-2 series lead. Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap were excellent in this one. Jokic posted 25 points, 19 rebounds, and six assists before fouling out late in the blowout. Millsap, not to be outdone, added 24 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal, and two blocks of his own. Denver held Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum reasonably quiet, as the duo scored just 34 points on 37 field goal attempts tonight.
With the same starting lineups tonight, Maurice Harkless opened the game guarding Murraywhile Torrey Craig checked Lillard on the other end. That led to both Murray and Lillard starting slow. The difference was the scorers around them. Paul Millsap hit a spot up three with Kanterslow on the close out, while Harris drew a foul on Kanter in transition to get two quick free throws. Murray got hit with two quick fouls and struggled to get much of anything going, but in his place was Paul Millsap, who absolutely took Enes Kanter to school. Jokic also got his long distance game going, helping create some easy points for Denver consistently.
It got a little sloppy to close the quarter, but the Nuggets managed to jump out to a six point lead, 31-25, over the Blazers.
With Jokic and Murray on the bench managing two fouls apiece, the Nuggets needed big minutes from their bench unit. Paul Millsap, who started cooking in the first quarter, helped the Nuggets bench in the second as well, taking Evan Turner down to the block. He had some assistance from Will Barton, who canned two threes at the beginning of the quarter as well. Eventually, the bench slowed down a bit, most notably with some glaring issues from Mason Plumlee on both ends, but the bench survived the minutes without Jokic before he came in at the 7:46 mark of the second quarter.
To close the first half, the Nuggets absolutely blitzed the Blazers on both ends. Jamal Murray was in his bag with some tough finishes around the rim, culminating in a three-pointer he hit right in Lillard’s face at the end of the shot clock to give him 11 points in the quarter. He may have been hit with a technical foul after that, but Murray getting good shots up helped Denver separate. Millsap though was the real MVP. His rotations and back line help defensively made life consistently difficult for the Blazers getting to the rim. When Kanter tried posting him up, Millsap stole his lunch money. The Nuggets rode the wave of momentum, and a four-point play from Millsap, to a 65-47 lead at halftime.
To open the third quarter, the Nuggets tore apart the Blazers in the half court offensively, with Jokic creating offense and Millsap continuing to cook. Denver consistently turned defense into offense this quarter, running on every opportunity and using those advantages to get layups in transition and put backs at the rim. McCollum and Lillard had some solid makes, but they were few and far between. Lillard in particular just couldn’t get a lot to fall from the perimeter, shooting 0/5 from three. The Nuggets, though they missed some easy shots and bogged down offensively to close the quarter, still had the juice to get to the rim and convert against a team lacking rim protectors. It was all Denver after the third quarter, 93-65.
To start the fourth quarter, the Nuggets struggled to get stops, including a couple of Meyers Leonard three-pointers. Plumlee was unplayable and led to a fair amount of points for the Blazers, and just like that, Denver had to bring back in their starters. They were still up 20 at that point, and Jokic captained some solid minutes from this group. He did get into it a little bit against Meyers Leonard, who was assessed a soft Flagrant 1 for an elbow under Jokic’s ribs on a shot.
May or may not be a biased tweet there.
Either way, this game was over midway through the fourth quarter. Garbage time ensued, and the Nuggets took this one 124-98.
Key Matchup: Gary Harris vs CJ McCollum
The hope for Denver in this matchup was for Harris to force a few more misses by McCollumwhen matched up with him early in the game, and he did just that. McCollum had seven points in the first half, but three were on Beasley missing an assignment in the second quarter. The Nuggets largely did a great job on McCollum, and Harris exceeded his first half point total with 10 of his own.
In the second half, the Nuggets started mixing assignments a bit more, but Harris was the key factor against McCollum who finished 5 of 16 from the field with just 12 points
Key Number: Nuggets plus-minus with Jokic on the bench
This was the big moment in the game. The Nuggets have posted a positive plus-minus with Nikola Jokic on the floor in every game this series and a negative plus-minus whenever he sits. That changed in the first half when Denver strung together a plus-3 point differential in the 7 minutes he sat. Key to it was productive Millsap isolations and some Barton threes.
It wasn’t the same in the second half, but the Nuggets had already grown the lead so much that the bench minutes didn’t hurt Denver. Plumlee remains a concern in Game 6, but if Millsap can continue hitting tough shots, it mitigates those problems slightly.
Closing thought: Go get a tough road victory now
Against San Antonio in Game 6 last round, only Nikola Jokic brought his A game, and it led to a loss and San Antonio forcing a tough Game 7. If the Nuggets were to earn a victory in Game 6 this time around...first of all, that would be dope as hell. Second of all, it would show some serious growth from this team. They have the Blazers right where they want them. It’s time to step up to the plate on the road once again and close out the series.