It’s not unusual for Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone to tell it like it is and put it bluntly again after a 115-95 Game 4 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
“Our headlines were horrible,” he said. “I thought we had some guys who were indecisive, who seemed a little scared, who played soft … we will have to be much better coming home.”
The Nuggets lagged behind early in Game 4, a developing trend in the series that they outplayed in Game 3. But with the Blazers holding down Denver’s offense, coupled with a newly discovered balanced score, the margin widened in the third. bedroom.
“The urgency has to be there. Maybe this is a wake-up call for our starting group to play harder,” Malone said. “Good things happen when we play hard and we don’t play hard enough tonight.”
The Nuggets starters were outscored 49-26 in Game 4, shot just 30% from the field and allowed Portland to shoot 65% when on the floor.
“Their headlines beat us a lot and we didn’t respond well,” Nikola Jokic said. “We need to be much better.”
The surprising thing about the loss and the final score is that it came despite Damian Lillard taking only one shot in 31 minutes. Lillard finished 1-10 from the floor, his only basket came with a step back from the arc in the first half. He had an impact in other ways, dishing 10 assists and recovering with 8 rebounds.
It was a Blazers collection that made up for Lillard’s lack of scoring, with Norman Powell tying a career-high in the Playoffs with 29 points on 11-15 shooting, CJ McCollum scoring 21 and Jusuf Nurkic adding 17.
“If you had told me coming in that Damian Lillard was going to be 1-10 from the field and they were going to beat us, I probably would have had a hard time believing that,” Malone said.
The attention Lillard draws is enormous, as the Nuggets send him multiple defenders and schemes at all times. An adjustment in Game 2 to put Aaron Gordon over Lillard was a game changer in that game, but he has since responded with 37 points in Game 3. But while Denver dedicated his defense to making things difficult for Lillard, he remained committed to making extra passes and moving the ball, especially with the way his teammates played.
“When the game goes like this, I try to manage the game and make sure it goes well,” he said. “Obviously I’m going to try to find my places and not be too passive, and I didn’t throw the ball well, but once I saw the guys doing it and we had a good flow of play and we were defending, I knew I wasn’t going to have to force myself. to enter the painting.
“If it was about that, I knew I’d lower my head a little lower and start looking a little more, but when the guys step up and feel good and take shots, and we’re winning the game with what we’re doing, my job is to understand that, manage it and overcome it. “
It’s the lowest field goal percentage for Lillard (10%) in a win with the Blazers since 2015, and the lowest field goal percentage for him in his career during the postseason. When asked if the Nuggets at least executed a positive defensive game plan against Lillard, Malone declined to acknowledge it.
“There is no good thing when your butt gets kicked in a playoff game,” he said. “I can’t believe we’re talking about playing tough in a playoff game. That should be a fact.”
With the Blazers up 20 or more for basically the entire second half, there was no call needed for ‘Dame Time’: Lillard spent most of the quarter on the bench.
“I didn’t have to go out there and try to score 50 points or just dominate the game and have a hero performance or anything like that. It was like our team needed to have a really good game,” he said. “We defended with a rope, our communication was on point, our execution was on the exact point and on the offensive side the ball was bouncing in our favor.”
The Blazers made some rotation adjustments, cutting back on their second unit with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson taking minutes from Enes Kanter, as well as adjusting their pick-and-roll coverage to try to stay closer to Denver’s ball handlers.
However, his focus throughout the series has been to go with mostly one-off coverage on Jokic, forcing the would-be MVP to become a scorer rather than the typical offensive scoring and passing buffet. Nurkic tied minutes with Jokic and, after fouls in the previous two games, had no foul problems in Game 4.
After posting just one assist for the second time in four games, Jokic has 12 overall in the series, tied for his fewest in any four-game span (regular season or playoffs) in the past three seasons.
According to Second Spectrum, Jokic only had two possible assists in Game 4 (shots that would have been credited with an assist if he had come in). The fewest potential assists in a game in the past four seasons. Nurkic’s presence was a big part of that, as he held the Nuggets to 5-17 on shooting as the leading defender in Game 4.
“I hear some clowns say I’m the worst defensive player in the league, so I don’t know, I don’t know if I can talk defense if some guy, some clown says I’m one of the worst in the league,” Nurkic said. “I’m trying to figure out if I’m playing defense or did they miss shots?”
With the series tied again, Game 5 will be in Denver on Tuesday.
“If the effort and energy are not going to be now, when will they be?” Jokic said. “I think every player has to assume that for himself and that can’t even be a question.”