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BY RYAN CLARKE/PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP/'We just need to be physical and defend much better'

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - CJ McCollum of the Trail Blazers gets a shot off easily against Malik Beasley of the Denver Nuggets.All bets are off in a Game 7, but playing it on your home court is an advantage teams work for all season.

Denver will have that advantage Sunday against the Trail Blazers, and the Nuggets will return to Pepsi Center focused on being the more aggressive team for all 48 minutes and advancing to the NBA Western Conference finals.

For the first six minutes on Thursday — and plenty thereafter — Denver was more aggressive than Portland, executed better and scored at will in the paint. But adjustments made by the Blazers and sparkling play from wing Rodney Hood and big man Zach Collins led to a 119-108 loss for the Nuggets in front of a raucous Moda Center crowd.

Denver's fans will bring the decibels on Sunday, to be sure. The Nuggets hope to cement their home court advantage with an on-court intensity that matches the roars around them.

According to coach Michael Malone, that starts on defense. Portland shot 46 percent from 3-point range in Game 6 and weaved in and out of the paint with ease during its second-half runs.

"The third and fourth quarter was back-and-forth," Malone said. "Bottom line is, we need to defend. (Portland scored) 119 points and had 15 made 3's … we got 46 shots in the paint tonight and made 16. It's unfortunate, but we've been here before."

The Nuggets have. After a 120-103 loss to San Antonio in Game 6 of the first round, Denver was able to hold off the Spurs in a 90-86 slugfest in Game 7. Slowing down Portland's offensive production will be priority number one, Nuggets players said.

"We've just got to do a better job of controlling the game," guard-forward Torrey Craig said. "When they go on runs, we've got to slow the game down and get the shots we want."

Much of the Blazers' production came from Hood, who poured in a playoff career-high 25 points and proved a near-impossible matchup for Denver's wings and guards in the post. His 3-point stroke was money, too, as he went 3 for 4.

"We need to watch the film and what aspects of the game he hurt us," Denver center Nikola Jokic said. "He shot 8 for 12, so that's a really high percentage. Maybe we just need to be aggressive on him and not let him pick us apart. He had a lot of wide-open shots.

"He's a really big factor in their team right now. He's making a lot of shots and getting to the basket, and he's a little bit taller than our wings, so he's using that to his advantage."

The second quarter of Game 6 swung the pendulum toward Portland as the Blazers outscored Denver 32-20, fueled by Hood's shooting and Collins' defense and rebounding. Portland's productive bench unit erased its forgettable first quarter.

Denver's bench managed just 13 points total — seven from former Blazer Will Barton, who was a minus-25 in his 26 minutes. Barton's most notable impact, however, was in a skirmish with Blazers guard Seth Curry in the fourth quarter. It led to a quartet of offsetting technical fouls.

Collins took a charge from Jokic and inadvertently slid into Barton's legs, causing him to back away and avoid getting injured. In Barton's view, Curry must have thought Barton was standing over Collins in an attempt to talk trash, leading to Curry confronting Barton as the two exchanged pleasantries.

"I guess he thought I was trying to stand over him and be tough," Barton said. "I was just trying to get out of the way before I got injured, and he pushed me, and I'm not gonna let nobody push me."

Barton managed to poke Curry in the eye during the scuffle and incite reactions from Collins and Craig, who also picked up technical fouls, but nobody was ejected and the game continued.

The back-and-forth didn't stop. After guard CJ McCollum hit an off-balance 3 to put Portland up 12 with 1:19 to go, he had some choice words for the Nuggets' bench. Guard Evan Turner gave someone the middle finger on his way back to the bench, too.

Will this elevated disdain for one another help or hurt the Nuggets in Game 7?

"I don't see how it can hurt us," Craig said. "We need all the motivation we can get. If it gets chippy, it gets chippy. It's part of the game."

Jokic thought little of the jawing and shoving.

"Basketball is an emotional game, so of course you're going to talk trash or whatever or hit someone," he said. "You just want to win a game."

Only one game stands between Denver and the conference finals, a year after the Nuggets didn't even make the playoffs. With questions swirling around the health of Golden State forward Kevin Durant and home court being a possibility if the Rockets-Warriors series goes the other way, an NBA Finals run is in sight.

Barton said home court against Portland is only a big deal if the Nuggets win. He acknowledged that the Blazers likely don't care where the game is played, and he expects Damian Lillard and company will be "ready to play" in the competitive, hard-fought series.

How Denver responds to Thursday's missed opportunity will define its season. A loss on Sunday ends a surprising year on a sour note, and a victory carries this miracle run one step closer to unprecedented glory. The Nuggets have never won a conference or NBA title.

Jokic, Barton and Craig agree that — in order to take care of business at home Sunday and shake Portland off its collective back — Denver has to approach Game 7 as the aggressor from start to finish.

"We just need to be physical and defend much better," Barton said. "CJ got it going, 'Dame' got it going, the bench had a big night for them. They just wanted it more than us tonight, and we've just got to make sure that we want it more than them (in Game 7)."


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