BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Denver's complete game puts Trail Blazers in must-win mode

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Trail Blazers guards CJ McCollum (left) and Damian Lillard struggled Tuesday night at Denver.DENVER — Late in the third quarter Tuesday night, the Pepsi Center partisans stood and yelled and screamed and waved their commemorative white towels as the Denver Nuggets were making mincemeat of the Trail Blazers.

One young fan offered a quarrel, though.

"I'd rather have had a T-shirt," she said with a smile. Then she reconsidered: "Maybe this is better to have tonight."

Sure. The fans wave the white towels; the Blazers wave the white flag.

Surrender came early in Portland's 124-98 loss, which leaves the Blazers on the brink of extinction in the playoffs.

The Nuggets punished the Blazers in every which way, leaving the possibility that the Mile-High guys — now leading 3-2 in the best-of-seven series — can wrap up the NBA Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Moda Center.

"They played a very good game," Portland coach Terry Stotts observed afterward, "and we didn't."

Denver shot .489 from the field and .903 from the free-throw line. The Nuggets dominated the battle in rebounds (62-44) and points in the paint (66-44). The Blazers shot poorly from the field (.367), from 3-point range (.270) and from the foul line (.533).

"They played as good as they could play, and we probably played as bad a game as we could play," said Portland's Damian Lillard, who scored 22 points but made only 9 of 21 shots from the field and 2 of 9 on the 3-point line. "You get outrebounded the way we did ... we missed 14 free throws ... and we didn't shoot well. When all those things happen, there's a slim chance you're going to win the game."

Center Nikola Jokic continued to torment the Blazers, collecting 25 points, 19 rebounds and six assists before fouling out with 3:50 left, long after the issue had been decided. Power forward Paul Millsap was a force again with 24 points and eight boards. After a slow start — his first basket came just before halftime — point guard Jamal Murray came on for 18 points, nine assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes.

"Part of our culture is being selfless and playing for each other, not just with each other," said Denver coach Mike Malone, sounding an awful lot like Stotts talking about the Blazers through most of this season. "We're a fun team to watch because of how unselfish we are. It's guys making the right play and playing off each other. Our guys are connected. You can tell by watching us play how much we care for each other."

The Nuggets got in an offensive flow early, scoring the game's first seven points, leading 65-47 at the half and by an insurmountable 91-60 late in the third quarter.

"They got whatever they wanted tonight," said small forward Moe Harkless, who played only 13 minutes, contributing five points and one rebound. "We have to do a better job not digging a hole."

CJ McCollum put it this way: "They beat the bricks off us tonight."

The Blazers threw up more than their share of bricks, for sure. And the Nuggets were on them like lint on a brush. Even in getting swept in the first round by New Orleans last season, the Blazers never got pounded like this — not even close.

Heck, Rocky the mascot even banked in a backward, two-handed, over-the-head midcourt shot during a fourth-quarter timeout. For the Nuggets, it was that kind of night.

McCollum never got going, finishing with 12 points on 5-for 16 shooting. He shook his head when asked if the Nuggets spiffed up their defense on him.

"The defense was the same," he said. "I was just missing shots. I'll be better Thursday."

Al-Farouq Aminu missed his first seven shots of the game and finished 1 for 8. Center Enes Kanter had one of his least productive games as a Blazer, making only 2 of 9 shots while collecting seven points and six rebounds.

"We were ready to go (mentally), but shots didn't fall," Harkless said. "That happens. (The Nuggets) made shots tonight. We couldn't get many stops. It's a matter of us playing tougher. We've got to do a better job containing guys."

And on the boards. The Nuggets had only 10 offensive boards — they averaged 18 through the first games of the series — but because of all the Portland misses, there were plenty of defensive rebound opportunities.

"We all have do a better job of boxing out," Kanter said. "Not just the big men — everybody. They've been crashing the boards the whole series. We have to make a better effort on that."

Before the game, Stotts had preached the necessity of the Blazers playing better defense than in Game 4.

"Our two best defensive games in this series are the ones we won," he said. "Everybody looks toward the offense and who's scoring and who's not, but we have to do a better job defensively and find ways to slow down their offense."

That didn't happen. The Nuggets had so many easy looks inside, it didn't matter that they were mediocre (8 for 24, .333) from 3-point territory.

"We didn't have a very good defensive game," Stotts said.

Added Kanter: "We definitely have to do a better job on the defensive end. There are going to be nights where you miss shots; but there's no excuse on defense."

Meanwhile, the Nuggets were making it difficult on the Blazers from any distance.

"The last two games, we've done a much better job defending the paint," Malone said. "Then you talk about our 3-point defense — all the guys who played for us tonight deserve credit in that regard.

"It's hard, because 'Dame' and CJ are coming at you; they're attackling. You have to have great one-on-one defense, but there has to be help behind it to make them finish with some tough shots."

Coming on with Denver leading by 31 points late in the third quarter, Portland's reserves cut the deficit to 20 at 96-76 with 9:17 left. That's when Malone re-inserted his starters.

"I was getting nervous about taking guys out too early," he said. "It's a delicate balance. You don't want anybody getting hurt. I loved the first three quarters. That fourth quarter was tough to watch as they continued to eat away at the lead. (Bringing back the starters) was like a security blanket for me. I probably left them in too long, but I wanted to make sure we got the win."

McCollum pointed the finger of blame at Portland's starting unit.

"The bench did a good job tonight," he said. "They were aggressive; they changed the game. We have to be better from the start, and it starts with the five starters. It's our fault. We have to do a better job.

"The Nuggets' role players have been great, but tonight Jokic killed us, Millsap killed us, Murray ... we have to tighten up and understand that if we don't, we'll be going home."

Or more accurately, staying home instead of going to Denver for a Game 7 on Sunday.

"The good thing is, whether you lose by one point or 25, it's one game," Lillard said. "We're going back home to try to force a Game 7 and make it back here."

The Blazers' route to the Western Conference finals just got significantly more difficult.

"We have two must-wins ahead of us," Stotts said. "Somebody was going to have a must-win after tonight, and it's us."

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