The Portland Trail Blazers did quite well as LaMarcus Aldridge was out for five consecutive games, and they continued playing good and most importantly winning basketball upon his return, with Robin Lopez and Damian Lillard chipping in as they beat the sinking Denver Nuggets 102-96.
Aldridge missed five games of which the Blazers won four in a row, and that streak continues against Denver, who are pretty much in free fall and close to tank mode by now. Too many injuries, and too many mistakes by Brian Shaw over the course of the season to correct it now, losing for the 10th time in 11 games.
Even though the Blazers struggled with what usually is their most important offensive weapon, the 3-point shot, their ball movement against the awful defense the Nuggets showcased was quite a joy to behold They were only 18.5% from 3-point range, but 59.2% from everywhere else, including 54 points in the paint, finding it quite easy to open up lanes through their ball movement.
Robin Lopez led the team with 18 points, adding 9 rebounds on a perfect 9-of-9 day from the line for him. Damian Lillard couldn’t get a 3-point shot to drop, but was perfect from everywhere else scoring 17 points, while LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t show too many signs of rust by scoring 16 points on 7-of-15 from the field.
Nicolas Batum also played a big role in this, despite scoring only 9 points on 3-of-10 from the field; he finished with 16 rebounds and 6 assists, not to mention playing some excellent defense as the Nuggets were held to 39.4% from the field, looking once more like a team that simply can’t wait for this season to be over.
This marks Portland’s first season sweep of the Nuggets (4 games) since 1999, scoring over 100 points in all four games. Moving to 23 games above .500, the Blazers are inching closer to their first playoff appearance since 2011, which will likely be from at least the third place in the Western Conference.
Brian Shaw talked about missed free throws after the game (the Nuggets were only 65.7% compared to 95.8% from the Blazers), but that was far from the only reason. The Blazers, even without hitting outside shots, are one of the best offensive teams in the NBA. The Nuggets played some atrocious defense, not to mention having only one player (Darrel Arthur) shooting over 50% from the field.
So Portland are back in full strength and presumable over the rough patch coming upon them before the All-Star break. Even though their key players are mostly young, a team without a significant helpful bench needs to find ways and keep their stars healthy and fresh for the next 23 games.
The Blazers should be good enough to go through a best of 7 playoff series, but it’s not going to happen if Aldridge and Lillard reach the final stages of the season on their knees. No use in giving up on chasing after the top spot right now, but as other teams have learn in the past – trying too hard to fight for position in the regular season might leave them with empty tanks come the playoffs.