DENVER — Denver coach Mike Malone calls the NBA a "make-or-miss league."
On Wednesday night at Pepsi Center, it was mostly a "miss-and-another-miss" type of affair.
When the dirt, er, dust setted, the Trail Blazers skipped away with a 97-90 victory over the Nuggets that squared their Western Conference semifinal series at 1-1.
"We couldn't make a damn shot," said Malone, exaggerating only slightly.
After fairly lighting it up in a 121-113 Game-1 victory — .506 from the field, .414 from 3-point range — the Nuggets fired mostly blanks on Wednesday.
The Blazers, who led 50-35 at halftime and by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, were just hanging on down the stretch, benefiting by Denver misses from everywhere — long range, short range, from the 3-point line, from the free-throw line. Many of them were open looks, the kind the Nuggets knocked down with regularity in Game 1.
The final count: 34 for 97 from the field (.347), .207 from 3-point range (6 for 29) and .615 from the foul line (16 for 26). Who were these guys, for crying out loud, the Oklahoma City Thunder?
"We did some good things," Malone said, "but not making shots over four quarters was the big difference in this game."
Portland shot poorly, too — .424 from the field and .310 (9 for 29) from beyond the arc. Damian Lillard had season playoff lows in scoring (14) and assists (four) and combined with CJ McCollum to make only 4 of 14 3-point attempts. But McCollum, who scored a game-high 20 points to go with six rebounds and six assists, had an answer for every Denver rally down the stretch with either a basket or a big play.
"They were paying a lot of attention to 'Dame,'" reserve guard Rodney Hood said. "CJ had a favorable matchup — anybody's a favorable matchup with that guy — and he made some big-time plays."
"We made timely plays when we needed them," Lillard said. "We wore them down in the first half, even though we weren't shooting particularly well. Then in the second half, it was a grind-it-out kind of game. In those games, you just have to be the tougher team. You have to want it more, and then you have to have a few plays go your way."
The "want" factor was higher on Portland's end. The Blazers didn't want to go home for Friday night's Game 3 trailing in the series 0-2.
"We did what we were supposed to — win one on the road," said power forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who contributed a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) and neutralized Denver's Paul Millsap.
"We had to gut this one out tonight," said small forward Moe Harkless, who sprained his right ankle in the second quarter and played only 13 minutes. "We did what we came here to do. We wanted to get one; we got one. Now we just have to take care of the home court."
Harkless came down on teammate Zach Collins foot.
"It's very sore," Harkless said. "It swelled up a little bit. Kind of a bad roll, I think. I tried to walk it off, but the pain wouldn't stop. It was a little too painful to go back out there.
"I'll have to take it day by day. We'll see how I respond (Thursday) and go from there."
The Blazers were better defensively than in the opener, especially in containing Nikola Jokic, who had put up 37 points in Game 1. "The Joker" still collected 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, but was only 7 for 17 from the field.
Coach Terry Stotts used centers Enes Kanter and Collins to defend the 7-foot Jokic and sent more double-team help their way.
"We pressured him a little bit more," Stotts said. "We didn't give him the clean looks that he had in Game 1. Enes did a good job, and Zach had good minutes on him. We didn't give him the freedom to make the plays he made in Game 1."
Kanter, who chipped in 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots in 32 minutes, enjoyed the fact that Jokic struggled at the offensive end.
"He thought it was just going to be sweet and he's going to get his 35 every night," Kanter said. "But we know we have to get physical. It was about trust and communication defending him — not just one man. We did a really good job — everybody."
"They double-teamed him," Malone said. "If you can't make them pay by making shots, you're in trouble. In order for us to make them pay, we gotta make shots. Tonight, we had a hard time doing so."
Kanter was at the center of a minor melee in the game's final minute. As Lillard was hitting a free throw to give Portland a 95-88 lead, Jokic shoved Kanter into Denver's Torrey Craig, who fell to the floor. Craig was already the game's folk hero, having returned to action wearing a face mask after sustaining a nose contusion in the first half.
As Kanter ran to midcourt, he was confronted by Denver guard Jamal Murray, and a scrum ensued. No blows were thrown, and Kanter and Murray were assessed technical fouls.
"It was a physical box-out and (Jokic) pushed me into his teammate, and I knocked (Craig) down," Kanter said. "Then (Murray) got into my face and I'm like, 'I didn't do anything.'
"But I like that. That's what the playoffs are all about. Go out there and give it everything you have. Win or you go home."
Murray should be worried more about his shooting touch, and that of his teammates. He and backcourt mate Gary Harris combined to make 10 of 30 shots — 2 of 13 from 3-point range. Murray, in particular, was Russell Westbrook-like pulling the string on perimeter shots as the game wore on.
"Our starting backcourt got some good looks," Malone said. "The shots just didn't go down."
Murray and Harris weren't the only ones gripping. Reserve guards Malik Beasley, Will Barton and Monte Morris combined to go 6 for 25 from the field, including 2 for 10 from beyond the arc.
The Blazers got off to a good start, taking a 28-23 lead after one quarter and increasing it as Denver's frustrations grew through a 12-point second quarter.
"I really liked our approach in the first half, particularly in the first quarter," Stotts said. "I like the tone we set early in the game."
"In the last game, (the Nuggets) didn't really feel us, just being at the rim, boxing guys out," Collins said. "Hitting first tonight was our mentality, and my mentality."
Collins contributed 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting and had six rebounds in a stellar 17-minute reserve role. Hood had his second big game off the Blazer bench, scoring 15 points in 27 minutes, including a big 3 in the fourth quarter.
The Nuggets came charging in the final period, grabbing 14 offensive rebounds and closing to within five points in the closing seconds. But offensive boards are there to be had if you're missing shots, and the Nuggets were 10 for 31 from the field, and 1 for 7 on 3's, over the final 12 minutes.
Denver finished with 23 offensive rebounds — five players had at least three — but were only 8 for 24 on second-chance attempts.
"They didn't convert them," Stotts said. "We were very fortunate that we came away not hurt as badly as we could have been. Millsap and Jokic were playing volleyball with it."
Malone was glad his players didn't quit.
"(The Blazers) were the aggressors in the first half," Malone said. "But I'm extremely proud of our guys in the second half. We fought.
"That's the most disappointing thing about tonight. We brought it in the second half; in the first half, it wasn't there."
It was an emotional night for the Blazers. Coaches and training staff personnel all wore bow ties in honor of Jonathan Yim, the team's video coordinator and player development coach, Yim was in a serious car accident last Wednesday and remains hospitalized in Portland. His routine was to wear a bow tie for every Wednesday game.
"I think we're undefeated on Wednesdays this year," Stotts said. "It's 'Bow-Tie Wednesday' in honor of Jon."
The Blazers finally beat Jokic, who was 4-0 against them this season, having sat out the regular-season finale between the teams in which Portland won 115-108.
Now they'd like to do it again Friday night at Moda Center, and put the Nuggets on their heels in the series.
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