Blazers lose their way, and their streak
So you thought the Trail Blazers were going to win their 19th straight home opener?
When Nikola Jokic went to the Denver bench 3:46 into the game, so did a lot of people.
But to all good things come to an end, and Portland's NBA-record streak did with a thud in the Nuggets' 108-100 victory Wednesday night at Moda Center.
It was a rematch of last season's Western Conference semifinals — won by Portland in seven games — and the 10th matchup between the teams since May, including a pair of preseason victories by the Nuggets over the Blazers earlier this month.
If familarity breeds contempt, consider the Blazers a little tired of going up against a Denver team that is expected to challenge for the NBA championship this season.
The Nuggets pulled this one out despite having their meal ticket, Nikola Jokic, on the bench for most of the first half after picking up three quick fouls. Portland got out to a 19-7 lead, but Denver dug in, turned the tables and jumped out in front 49-39 before settling for a 54-50 advantage at halftime.
Jokic returned and did little in the third quarter as the Blazers rallied to take a 74-73 edge into the final period.
Portland was on top 88-87 after a Hassan Whiteside tip-in with 4:59 remaining, but with the "Joker" now in full gear, Denver outscored the Blazers 21-12 the rest of the way.
"When the game was being decided (over the final five minutes), we had too many lapses at both ends of the floor," said Portland's Damian Lillard, who made a turnover off a bad pass, missed a free throw and failed to convert a layup during that stretch. "We weren't sharp enough at either end."
Jokic had 16 points and eight rebounds in the fourth quarter, including back-to-back 3's that staked Denver to a 97-90 lead and all but buried the home team. The 7-foot Serbian finished with 20 points and 13 boards in just 24 minutes.
"Nikola showed everyone why he is an MVP-caliber player," Denver coach Mike Malone said.
"He made 3's, he scored in the paint, made his free throws — he had a lot to do with it," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
"For them to be in the game with Jokic out the first half, I'm sure they had a little bit of energy off that," Portland's Kent Bazemore said. "Then he came back and really changed the game."
"That's what good teams do when they have a lot of depth," Portland's Rodney Hood said. "They have a lot of guys who can play. They moved the ball when he was out. When one of their best guys goes out, they know how to keep it going."
The issue was decided at the 3-point line, with Denver sinking 18 of 32 attempts (.562) and Portland only 7 of 28 (.250) creating a 33-point disparity the Blazers were unable to overcome.
"The 3-point shot is a great equalizer," Stotts said. "(The Nuggets) shot it really well. The way the league is going, we have to be able to defend the 3 better."
After a slow start, Damian Lillard came on to score 23 of his 32 points in the second half — 13 in the fourth quarter — to go with eight assists. But Lillard made only 3 of 10 shots from 3-point range, a malady that touched most of the Blazers.
"We couldn't make a shot out there," said Mario Hezonja, who scored two points and went 0 for 3 from the field in his Blazer debut. "It happens. We still had a chance to win the game. That speaks a lot about the identity of this team."
But it was Portland's inability to cool down the Nuggets' from long range that was the biggest problem.
"When a team makes 18 3's and you still have a chance to win, you have to give yourself a little bit of credit," said Bazemore, who was 1 for 7 from the field but had five steals in his first game as a Blazer. "But there's some stuff we have to clean up."
Denver shot worse on 2-point shots (16 for 49, .326) than from 3-point range.
"We had a pretty solid defensive game other than giving up so many 3's," Lillard said. "They have so many guys who shoot the ball well. We just need to be much more aware of running guys off the line more than we did tonight."
With Jokic on the bench through most of the first half, former Blazer Mason Plumlee got extra time in the pivot. His numbers weren't great — five points, four rebounds and five assists in 19 minutes — but he took care of things on the interior defensively while Will Barton (19 points), Jamal Murray (14), Paul Millsap (11) and Torrey Craig (10) stoked the offense.
"Even when Jokic isn't on the floor, they're still a super deep team with talent," Lillard said. "Mason does a lot of things similar to what Jokic does, other than shoot the ball.
"It's just about understanding the game is so long. We can't just go out there and play well in stretches, especially against a good team like that. Our letdowns hurt us."
Whiteside's first counting game as a Blazers was an impressive one. The 7-foot center scored 16 points on 6-for-7 shooting, snared 19 rebounds and blocked two shots in only 26 minutes.
"A great opener for him," Stotts said. "He had an impact on the game at both ends. For a guy who didn't get a lot of run in the preseason (due to injuries), it was a pretty good performance by him."
The Blazers now head out for a four-game trip that begins Friday night at Sacramento.
"I'm not too worried about us making shots," said Hood, who was 5 for 10 from the field, 2 for 5 from 3-point range and collected 13 points and five rebounds. "We have the ability to do that. We're a good offensive team. We just have to figure out what we have to do defensively."
"This was our first real game together," Hezonja said. "It takes a little bit of time to mesh. There are a lot of new guys. We just have to take more responsibility at both ends — especially offensively in my case — but we'll be fine. This is a big road trip coming up. We'll bounce back."
NOTES — Millsap, Jokic and Murray all made three treys, and Barton, Craig, Jerami Grant and Malik Beasley made two apiece for the Nuggets. ... Portland outscored Denver 54-22 in the paint. The Blazers were 21 of 23 (.913) from the free-throw line. ... Both teams finished with 20 turnovers. ... Portland's CJ McCollum finished with 12 points on 5-for-18 shooting. He was 3 for 7 and scored seven points in the first quarter, then was 2 for 11 and scored five points the rest of the way. ... Whiteside's 19 boards were the most by a Blazer in a season opener since Bill Walton grabbed 24 in a 131-129 quadruple-overtime win over Cleveland in 1974.
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