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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Blazers look to improve in several areas for Tuesday's Game 5

DENVER — It's back to the underdog role for the Trail Blazers as they hit Pepsi Center on Tuesday night for Game 5 of their wedgie-tight NBA Western Conference semifinal series with Denver.

The Nuggets reclaimed home court advantage and momentum with their 116-112 victory at Moda Center on Sunday, squaring the best-of-seven series at two wins apiece.

Portland was in position to take a 3-1 lead in the West semis for the first time since 2000, when Mike Dunleavy was the coach and Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen and Arvydas Sabonis among the stars on the team that came within a nightmarish fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers of reaching the NBA Finals.

That opportunity is gone. But the Blazers are still in position to emerge victorious in the Denver series, even with a potential Game 7 also to be held at Pepsi Center.

Portland's best chance is to win is 7:30 p.m. PT Tuesday, then wrap up the series in six games at Moda Center on Thursday night. If it goes to a seventh game, it will be even more difficult to win on the Nuggets' home floor, where they were an NBA-best 34-7 during the regular season.

This is about as evenly matched a series as the NBA and its TV network affiliates (TNT and ESPN) could hope for. Both teams have made 44 3-point shots and 82 free throws. Denver has one more field goal (169-168) and has scored two more points (464-462) than Portland. The Blazers have four more turnovers (57-53).

Each team has won on the opposing court — Portland in Game 2, Denver in Game 4.

"We have to protect homecourt better," said Jamal Murray, Denver's 21-year-old point guard, who scored 34 points and hit 6 of 6 free throws over the final 13.2 seconds of Game 4. "We did a good job of that during the regular season. The best thing about us is we fight back and know we can win on the road. But it's a blessing to go back home for Game 5."

Murray has had back-to-back 34-point games and scored 23 in Denver's series-opening 121-113 victory. He lost confidence in his shooting stroke in Game 2, playing a "chicken Nugget" role while making 6 of 18 shots in Portland's 97-90 win.

"When he tries to play a low-key, non-emotional game, he is just an average player," Denver coach Mike Malone said. "A lot of guys get too emotional and they get out of control. When Jamal plays with that fire, the passion brings out the best in him."

Said Murray: "When players get frustrated, they get taken out of a game mentally. I'm just the opposite. When I get pushed around or challenged, I take my game to the next level."

Now it's time for Damian Lillard to do that. The Blazers' point guard and ringleader, destined to make either the all-NBA first or second team this season, is averaging 27.3 points and 6.3 assiss in this series. But he has made only 9 of 35 3-point shots and has struggled more often than not against the Nuggets' plan to get him off his game.

"He has been having some good looks," Portland coach Terry Stotts said after Game 4. "Give credit to (the Nuggets') defense. They really help in the paint. They're aggressive on pick-and-rolls. But it's nothing we haven't seen."

To this degree it is, at least since last year's playoff series with New Orleans. In the Oklahoma City series, Lillard made eight 3's from beyond 30 feet and knocked down 10 treys while scoring 50 points in the 118-115 Game 5 series wrap-up. There have been none of them so far against the Nuggets.

"(The Nuggets) are picking him up pretty high, across half-court," Stotts said. "They're not giving him a lot of space. (The shots) need to be open. For 'Dame,' a good 3 is an open 3, but I don't think those same 3's are there."

When double-teamed, Lillard has to trust his teammates and get the ball to the open man. CJ McCollum has had an excellent offensive series, averaging 26.5 points and shooting .394 from 3-point range. Off the bench, Rodney Hood is averaging 14.5 points and shooting .576 from the field and .571 on 3-point attempts.

Maybe the best news for the Blazers was the re-emergence of Seth Curry, who came into the game shooting .343 from the field and averaging 4.9 points in the playoffs. In the first three games of the Denver series, Curry scored 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting. That after shooting .456 from the field — and .450 from 3-point range — and averaging 7.9 points in the regular season.

On Sunday, Curry scored all of his 16 points Sunday in the first half — 14 in the second quarter — while hitting 6 of 9 shots from the field, 4 of 6 from 3-point territory. His hurry-up 3 as time expired to end the first half gave the Blazers a 63-57 lead heading into intermission.

"It was really good to see him get hot out there," Lillard said. "With the attention that's coming when CJ or I handle the ball, it's huge that he's making shots. Rodney is making shots. We're getting guys off the ball scoring, giving (the Nuggets) something to worry about. Going forward, that's going to be huge for us."

But Curry got only one shot in the second half, and Hood took only four shots, making three, in his 24 minutes in Game 4. Both players need more scoring opportunities in Game 5. So does center Enes Kanter, who got off only five shots in his 29 minutes on Sunday.

The Blazers must deal with Denver's meal ticket, 7-foot center Nikola Jokic. "The Joker" is averaging a near triple-double in the series — 26.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 9.5 assists — and has the ball in his hands so much, the No. 2 Nugget in assists is Murray (4.4 per game). Nobody else on the Denver team is in double figures for the series, but that's partially by design. Malone puts him at point center at the top of the key and lets him dice up the defense with his passing.

"Nikola makes every one of his teammates better," Malone said. "He raises their level of play. He finds the open man, he doesn't force it, he's unselfish and his (basketball) IQ is of the charts.

"He is a basketball purist. He is always going to make the right play. He draws a crowd, and he is going to find the open man."

Led by Jokic and power forward Paul Millsap, the Nuggets are averaging nearly 18 offensive rebounds in the series to 13 for the Blazers.

"Their guards can rebound, too," Stotts said. "We have to do a better job putting bodies on them. Sometimes, it's bad bounces. Sometimes, they're more aggressive going after the ball."

So Portland's formula for winning Game 5 goes something like this:

Defend Murray better and cope as well as possible with the variety of talents of Jokic. Set up more shots for the current hot hands off the bench — Curry and Hood. Get Kanter more involved at the offensive end. Keep the Nuggets off the offensive boards. And find away for Lillard to get back to being one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league.

"We haven't done anything yet," Malone said after Game 4. "We've tied the series, we've taken home court advantage back, but 'Dame' is capable of getting 50 in a heartbeat. He keeps on coming at you, but our guys have responded well to that."

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@kerryeggers


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