Blazers say they'll correct course in Denver
Early in the fourth quarter, Trail Blazers forward-center Zach Collins and swingman Rodney Hood both went for a rebound, accidentally fighting each other off the ball and squandering a possession for their team.
With the Blazers clawing back toward a tie in a second half that Denver had largely controlled, it was the kind of error they couldn't afford.
The play wasn't Portland's only mistake by a long shot. It was, however, emblematic in Sunday's 116-112 home loss.
Denver's victory knotted the NBA Western Conference semifinals at 2-2, as the series shifts back to the Mile High city.
Players in Portland's locker room were frustrated, but not sullen. Role players expressed confidence that the team can bounce back and do what it did in Game 2 — win on the road and regain control of the series.
In Game 2 at Denver, the Blazers overcame 23 offensive rebounds by the Nuggets and pulled out a 97-90 victory.
In Game 4 at Moda Center, Portland surrendered 17 offensive rebounds, and second chances proved to be the difference in key moments of a difficult final 24 minutes.
"The common theme of the series is extra possessions for them," Hood said. "It keeps them in the game, especially when they're not hitting shots.
"When you give a team like that extra possession after extra possession, it becomes tough. They just outworked us tonight."
Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap bullied Portland down low during Denver's second-half turnaround. Millsap, especially, is proving a difficult matchup for Portland forwards Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu and sometimes center Enes Kanter. Millsap has been capitalizing on his strength and athleticism, along with a veteran ability to jockey for position.
Millsap finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday.
Jokic — who notched a triple-double with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists — is a relentless threat. His passing ability rivals many of the all-time great big men in that category, and his burly frame and shooting stroke create stretches of havoc for Kanter, Collins and company.
Pick-and-pop plays with Denver guard Jamal Murray have become a game of "pick your poison" for Portland at this point. The 22-year-old Murray poured in 34 points in Game 4 after posting 34 in Game 3. A choice between crowding Murray or Jokic leaves Portland with two bad options.
"It's tough to guard it with those two guys," Harkless said. "Jokic pops back and Jamal strings it out as far as he can, so it's a tough closeout. We've got to find out a way to stop that."
The Blazers expressed a desire to stop the biggest guy on the floor first and foremost, however futile that resistance might appear to be.
"We've got to stop Jokic," guard Seth Curry said. "He's making plays for everybody out there. He's finding them when they're open and getting it to them quick in their shooting pockets, and they're knocking them down. We've got to find ways to limit Jokic and stop the offensive rebounds."
Curry was a bright spot for Portland off the bench, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second quarter alone. The Blazers rode that momentum to a 63-57 halftime advantage, but the tide turned.
Whether they had used it all in a quadruple-overtime thriller less than 48 hours earlier, or they simply let overconfidence get the best of them, the Blazers admitted their energy was lacking to start the third quarter.
And, an opportunity to take a 3-1 lead slipped through their fingers as the series became a three-game set, with Games 5 and 7, if necessary, booked for Denver.
"We came out flat, went back and forth, and then they hit us, and we were on our heels for the rest of the game," Hood said of the third quarter, which Denver won 27-14. "In moments when we've got a chance to put our foot on their necks, we've got to use that. That's something to learn from, and we'll watch the third quarter to see how we can get better."
Harkless said the onus is on Portland to set the tone and maintain an aggressive mind-set. Allowing Denver to dictate the flow is a recipe for disaster, he said.
"I just felt like we weren't as aggressive tonight, for whatever reason," Harkless said. "We've just got to be able to sustain that throughout a series and for four quarters. We can't have any letdowns."
McCollum led Portland with 29 points, trailed closely by Lillard with 28. Aminu pitched in 19, and Curry did his part off the pine, but no other Blazer had a significant impact as in previous victories. Hood managed just seven points, and Kanter had five points and 10 rebounds.
Kanter said his ailing left shoulder — separated and re-separated over the last couple weeks — is feeling "a lot better."
Still, though, he was held largely in check after playing a key role in the first three games.
Kanter, like his teammates, said he believes it's Portland's turn to press the issue after taking one on the chin from the Nuggets.
"We've just got to make them feel uncomfortable, man," Kanter said. "If you just let them move the ball, they're going to pick you apart. We've got to go out next game and pressure them better."
Portland has been in positions where doubt might creep in. The Jusuf Nurkic injury, the Kanter injury, points of peril throughout competitive playoff games — all have been answered with resolve by the Blazers. Denver's resurgence presents a new mountain — literal and figurative — for Portland to climb in its pursuit of a deep postseason run.
The Blazers hope they find the next foothold when they watch video of Sunday's loss and rest on Monday, a travel day. Game 6 is 7:30 p.m. PT Tuesday at Denver.
"We're very confident as a team," Curry said. "We let one slip tonight, but we've been on the road several times this year and got big wins."
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