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PORTLAND, Ore. – The Nuggets brought the hammer with them to Portland.
The tough-as-nails Nuggets stormed back from a 14-point second-half deficit Thursday night and ripped Rip City’s heart out. The Nuggets’ riveting 126-115 Game 6 win ended the Blazers’ season and sent Denver to the second round of the NBA playoffs for the third consecutive season. The winner of Lakers-Suns awaits.
The game was tied at 108 with 6:12 left. From there, the Nuggets took over. Austin Rivers converted a layup, then Monte Morris followed suit. Rivers drained a 3-pointer, which whipped Denver’s bench into an elated frenzy.
On the verge of the seismic win, center Nikola Jokic put the finishing touches on another masterpiece. He dropped in two more buckets before Aaron Gordon buried a 3-pointer from the corner to end the drama.
Jokic scored 27 of his 36 points in the second half, and added eight rebounds and six assists to his superlative night. Morris scored 22 off the bench, including numerous clutch shots during the comeback. Michael Porter Jr. finished with 26, his first-quarter flurry sending the message the Nuggets came to close it out.
Frustrations simmered into the third quarter as Denver’s defensive breakdowns and the whistles mounted. Nuggets coach Michael Malone had numerous animated chats with officials, while Denver’s bench was incensed at some of the calls. Injured guards Jamal Murray, Will Barton and P.J. Dozier stood near the corner of the court, never too far from the action.
The Nuggets rode out a wave of Blazers 3-pointers, including three from Robert Covington, and never let the game get away from them. It was 93-79 with 4:53 left in the third quarter when the Nuggets turned to their superstar. Jokic poured in 20 points in the third quarter including a rim-rattling jam.
JaMychal Green drew a key offensive foul against Jusuf Nurkic, which sent Portland’s best interior defender to the bench with four fouls. Jokic and the Nuggets took advantage, attacking the driving lanes and exposing Portland’s lack of depth inside. When Morris buried a running 3-point floater to end the third, Denver had sawed Portland’s advantage to 101-98.
Malone didn’t need a reminder of what had happened only two games earlier, when his team got pounded with a 2-1 series lead. He also didn’t need a history lesson. Their 3-2 series lead over the Blazers didn’t hold up well in 2019.
“Let’s not approach this with the mindset of, ‘Hey, it’s OK if we lose, we have Game 7 at home,’” Malone said. “You don’t want that thought in the back of your mind. You want this being a Game 7 for us. We have to do everything we can to win this game and not rely upon going home.
“… We’ll be able to tell very early on where our minds are at, where our hearts are at, where our bodies are at,” he said.
He also pleaded with his team to be the aggressor.
“You hear people all the time say, ‘Hey, we have to match their physicality, we have to match their urgency,” Malone said. “… I don’t want to match anything. I want to exceed it.’ I don’t want to be a counter-puncher.”
Porter came out possessed.
His teammates freed him with screens, and Denver’s 6-foot-10 stretch forward ripped the nets over and over. His six first-quarter 3-pointers tied an NBA playoff record dating back to at least 1997, and the Blazers couldn’t put out the fire fast enough. Norm Powell drew the assignment, followed by Covington and for a few possessions, C.J. McCollum. Porter was scorching. By halftime Porter had 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, with six 3-pointers.
The Nuggets trailed 68-61 going into the break, but considering how Jokic endured first-half foul trouble, it was a small victory. Lillard buried a 3-pointer to end the second quarter, marking Portland’s 11th of the half.
And even though Lillard beckoned to crowd, the Nuggets weren’t demoralized. They ran into the locker room clapping, encouraged that they’d brought the fight to Portland.