Blazers, Nuggets both say they have to play better
It's never wise to get too comfortable in a playoff series, because things can turn on a dime.
After holding on for a 97-90 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night in Pepsi Center, the Trail Blazers return to the friendly confines of Moda Center for Friday's 7:30 p.m. Game 3 tied 1-1 in the best-of-seven NBA Western Conference semifinals.
Portland is 35-9 this season at home, including three victories against Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs. It's not likely, however, that the Nuggets will shoot as poorly as they did in Game 2.
"Our goal is to just take it one game at a time and protect our home floor," said Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who was held to season playoff lows in points (14) and assists (four) on Wednesday. "We have to be better, because we know (the Nuggets) are going to come back better."
It wasn't a must-win game for the Blazers, but it was leaning in that direction. A loss would have meant they'd have to win four of the next five games, including at least once on Denver's home court, to advance.
Only 20 teams have come back from an 0-2 deficit to win a seven-game playoff series in NBA history. But two of those were Portland teams — the 1976-77 Blazers in the NBA Finals against Philadelphia, and the 2015-16 Blazers in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Blazers got it done in Game 2, and now it's the Nuggets who will be eager to turn things around.
"Perhaps teams play a little bit harder after a loss," Portland coach Terry Stotts said in a Thursday media availability. "(The Nuggets) played a very good game in Game 1. They didn't shoot the ball very well in Game 2. They'll probably come back very confident."
Or motivated. The Nuggets might not be as good of shooters as they showed while winning the opener 121-113 on Monday, but they're certainly not as bad as they were in Game 2. They were 34 for 97 from the field (.347), .207 from 3-point range (6 for 29) and .615 from the foul line (16 for 26).
The analytics are not going to look good for the Nuggets in that one. They had numerous open looks from every range extending to the 3-point line and never found a rhythm.
"Those are great shots that we want to get," said Denver guard Gary Harris, who was 4 for 12 from the field and 0 for 5 from beyond the arc. "We just didn't knock them down. But we have a next-play mentality. We just have to keep shooting them, and those are going to fall next game.
"We just have to be better. We have to come out more physical, be ready to play in Portland, and those shots will fall."
Denver coach Mike Malone suggested a different tactic if the Nuggets should be so errant from distance in Game 3.
"If you're not making shots, maybe attack the basket, maybe get to the rim, maybe get to the foul line," he said. "We were getting such open looks that I understand our players shooting the shots. But when you're not having a night when you making shots consistently, you have to attack instead of settle."
Portland made solid adjustments in containing Nikola Jokic in Game 2, doubling him more on every touch. The 7-foot Serbian, who had scored 37 points in the opener, managed 16 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists but made only 7 of 17 shots from the field.
The Nuggets never cashed it in, even after scoring only 12 second-quarter points to go into intermission trailing 50-35. They rallied from a 17-point third-quarter deficit to draw within five points inside the game's final minute, ferociously crashing the boards for 14 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets wound up grabbing 23 caroms off the offensive glass, with five players getting three or more. But they were only 8 for 24 shooting on second-chance opportunities.
"We were very fortunate that we came away not hurt as badly as we could have been," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "(Paul) Millsap and Jokic were playing volleyball with it. They're both excellent offensive rebounders and (the Nuggets) are a top-three offensive rebounding team. We have to make sure they don't have those opportunities next game."
Al-Farouq Aminu said the Blazers must continue to work hard to defend a Denver team with a lot of offensive weapons — when things are going right. In their four playoff losses this season, the Nuggets are shooting 32 percent from 3-point range. In Wednesday's game, they had trouble finishing around the rim, too, in part because the Blazers didn't give in.
"To guard these guys, you have to be locked in from 1 to 5," said Aminu, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds in Game 2. "It takes a lot out of you — the altitude (in Denver), the way play through Jokic.
"There weren't a lot of back-doors or easy baskets. We made them grind for all their points. It worked to our advantage."
"The first half, our defense was very good," Stotts said. "They had too many open 3's. We contested a lot of them, but we can do a better job with that. The rebounding was an obvious thing in the fourth quarter, and they got to the free-throw line too much in the third quarter. But we did well as far as setting the tone, picking up the ball a little higher (defensively) and not letting them have the same rhythm to their offense."
Portland may be without starting small forward Moe Harkless, who rolled his right ankle after coming down on teammate Zach Collins' foot in the second quarter.
"It's very sore," Harkless said after the game. "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."
A Thursday MRI on Harkless' ankle was negative. He is listed as questionable for Game 3. If Harkless is unable to play, Stotts may start Jake Layman, who opened the second half in Harkless' absence Wednesday. Or the coach may opt for Rodney Hood, who gave the Blazers a big lift off the bench for the second straight game. Hood — who scored 16 points in the entire Oklahoma City series — tallied 15 in Game 2 after going for 17 in 18 minutes of the opener.
Center Enes Kanter continues to play with a separated left shoulder, and play well. He had 15 points and nine rebounds and was the principal defender banging inside with Jokic.
"I don't really feel it a lot during the game," Kanter said afterward. "I'm on heavy pain medication. I'm probably going to start feeling it in the next two hours. It keeps me awake all night, but you know what? It's the playoffs."
How do the Blazers feel heading into Friday night?
"Confident," Kanter said. "We feel more comfortable out there, especially on defense. We helped each other very well. We were communicating and trusting each other."
Lillard is unlikely to have as quiet a game as he did Wednesday. And backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who is 15 for 37 from the field in the two games but hit some big shots down the stretch of Game 2, may be ready to explode at the offensive end.
"The looks CJ had in the first half were really good," Stotts said. "That's the encouraging thing. If he's under duress, that's one thing. But he got to his spots and got some good looks at 3's. When he's getting quality shots, it's less of a concern."
The Nuggets, of course, are looking at the positives of their situation.
"It's 1-1," Harris said. "We can take home court advantage back by winning the next game, so we're still in good position."
"If we come out with the same mentality we finished the game with," Millsap said, "we'll be fine."
"We have to shoot better, but I do love the fact that our guys competed at such a high level," Malone said. "Now, the challenge is doing that for as close to 48 as possible."
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