The Portland Trail Blazers are still missing LaMarcus Aldridge, but that isn’t stopping or slowing down Damian Lillard, leading his team to a third consecutive win, this time 100-95 over the Denver Nuggets on the road.
Lillard finished with 31 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, as the Blazers lost an 18 points lead, almost allowing the Nuggets to tie the game but some big shots from Lillard and Nicolas Batum, not to mention a surprisingly good defense in the final minutes, kept the Blazers on the winning path, which they have been struggling to do before the All-Star break.
The Blazers are playing with a lineup of four shooters AND Robin Lopez, with Dorell Wright doing a good job in filling in for Aldridge. Not that Aldridge plays close to the rim, but he isn’t a 3-point shooter, unlike Wright, who finished with 12 points and 2-of-4 from beyond the arc.
Nicolas Batum had a good game with 16 points and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, including the biggest one of the game coming late in the fourth, giving Portland a seven point lead with 40 seconds left in the game. Portland shot just 4-of-21 from the field in the fourth quarter (36.8% from the field in the entire game), but that big three from Batum more than made up for all those misses.
Denver finally had the sense of playing J.J. Hickson off the bench as a power forward, resulting in a big 16 points, 25 rebounds game from him, including 15 on the offensive glass. Mozgov started and finished with 16 points and one nasty block on Damian Lillard. The Nuggets are slipping further and further away from the postseason, playing with Aaron Brooks as their point guard, but it seems that not having two players (Faried and Hickson) stepping on each others toes will do them a lot of good.
But as a team Denver looks just as bad in their shooting as Portland. Some of it was bad shots, but a lot of it was bad execution on open looks, leading to the Nuggets shooting an abysmal 35.9% from the field.
Portland are trying to find the form they were in starting the season 24-5. They’ve gone 15-13 since, finally getting themselves into a winning streak even though they’re without their best player. The teams they’ve beaten – Utah, Denver and Minnesota, are all out of the playoffs, but you begin with the small fish, working your way up.
Shooting nights like this will happen, especially for a team that runs almost everything on the basis of stretching the floor and making 3’s, with a little mix up using Lillard’s talents of scoring in the paint when he decides to create. As the late fourth quarter presented, it might be the defense or lack of it that will determine if this season will only be remembered as a nice regular season without any kind of playoff success, or will the Blazers find a way to actually get stops on the defensive end and make the pressure a little more bearable when they’re in possession of the ball.