Blazers to fight back -- or else
No more messing around.
It's time for the Big Guys to step up.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, come on down!
With the Trail Blazers' backs nestled up to the Moda Center wall, it's put up or shut down time for the local quintet in the NBA playoffs.
The Denver Nuggets carry a 3-2 lead into Thursday's 7:30 p.m. Game 6 at Moda Center. Portland is left with only one route to the Western Conference finals: Beat the Nuggets at home, then travel to Denver and knock them off again in a Game 7 at Pepsi Center on Sunday.
After the Nuggets' 124-98 dismantling of the Blazers in Tuesday's Game 5 in Denver, Portland coach Terry Stotts expressed confidence in his players' ability to force a Game 7.
"They've always responded," he said. "Our core guys who have been here, they've shown that over the years. They're professionals. They have a lot of pride.
"We'll be at home. There will be a lot of energy in the building. I expect it will be a very good game, and I think we'll play well."
Lillard was sensational in Portland's five-game ouster of Oklahoma City in the first round, averaging 33.0 points and putting a 50-spot on the Thunder in the series-deciding 118-115 Game-5 victory.
Lillard has averaged 26.2 points in the Denver series, but his shooting numbers have been decidedly subpar — .429 from the field, .250 (9 for 36) from 3-point range and .759 from the free-throw line.
Denver has used 6-6 guard Torrey Craig and Gary Harris to defend Lillard, with 7-foot Nikola Jokic patrolling the interior to provide help defense off the pick-and-roll.
"He's their best player," Denver coach Mike Malone said of Lillard. "He dominated the OKC series with big shot after big shot. Any time you're playing against a team with a player like that, you game-plan to take that guy out. We guarded him really well in the regular season, and we've guarded him really well in this series. He has missed some open shots, but you have to give our guys some credit.
"He's a great player. He's an All-Star for a reason. He's capable of scoring 50 in Game 6, and we're well aware of that. We have plenty of work to do. We're not done yet."
Said Lillard of the Denver defensive scheme on him:
"They're doing a good job. They're making me see bodies. They're being physical with me. They're chasing me around screens. There's not a lot of space out there. But I've been in situations where I haven't taken advantage of opportunities. The opportunities are there."
Might Lillard go for 50 points in Game 6?
"I've had big games against tough defenses, when I was getting a lot of attention," he said. "With our season on the line and knowing we have to have two games in a row ... you never know."
McCollum had his first clunker of the series in Game 5, scoring only 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting. Lillard's backcourt mate is still averaging 23.6 points and shooting .395 from 3-point range in the five games, though only .411 from the field. The Blazers could use a night Thursday where both of them are on.
They also need some help offensively from their starting forwards, Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, who have been off their games in this series. Aminu is shooting .317 from the field and has made only 3 of 17 attempts from the 3-point line. He is averaging 8.2 points and 8.4 rebounds. Harkless is shooting .444 from the field and has made only 2 of 9 from beyond the arc. He is averaging 6.2 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Collectively, the Blazers must do better at the defensive end. The Nuggets have scored at least 116 points in four of the five matchups. That makes it difficult for the opponent to win.
Nobody expects the Nuggets to have an easy time of it Thursday. Malone hopes his players will remember their Game 6 loss at San Antonio in the first round, necessitating a winner-take-all Game 7 win at Denver to advance.
"In Game 6 in San Antonio, we didn't come to play mentally or physically," the Denver coach said. "I hope we have a much different mind-set going into this Game 6.
"We know it's going to be a really tough game. (The Blazers) are not going to roll over. They're going to fight. They have a very good home-court record (36-10, including 4-1 in the postseason). We have to bring physicality, the right mind-set and be ready to play from Jump Street. Hopefully, we learned our lesson and will have it Thursday."
Jokic said he doesn't believe the Blazers' spirit is broken.
"We are going to play them on their home court," he said. "They don't want to lose there. It's going to be a really tough game. It will be one of the toughest games of our lives."
The Blazers' "want" factor should be on high alert.
"It's our last game if we lose," center Enes Kanter said. "We have to give everything we've got. If we lose this game, we don't play until next year."
It might, in fact, be Kanter's final game as a Blazer if they lose. A free agent this summer, he'll likely command a contract more lucrative than what Portland can offer.
"We know we can't play the way we did (in Game 5)," Harkless said. "We know (the Nuggets) played very well. Nobody in our locker room feels like we can't beat them. We know we can compete with that team. We just have to have that same mind-set going back to home.
"(Game 5) happened. It's over with. That's the beauty of the playoffs. Next game, it doesn't matter. It's zero-zero — one game, and an opportunity for us to tie the series. We have to learn that we can't just come into a game and think that things are going to happen for us. We've got to make it happen."
The old adage: One game at a time. And, the Blazers hope, then one more.
"We know we're more than capable of getting it done in the next game," Lillard said. "We haven't played our best basketball yet. With our backs against the wall, we don't really have a choice."
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