One step forward … two steps back.
Two nights after beating the Orlando Magic to snap out of their three-game funk, the Portland Trail Blazers resorted back to their losing ways Friday night at the Moda Center.
The Denver Nuggets built a double-digit first-half lead and then held on down the stretch to hand the Blazers a heartbreaking defeat, 113-112, in a fast-paced and fun-to-watch Northwest Division matchup televised nationally on ESPN.
CJ McCollum kept the Blazers (13-9) within striking distance with a scintillating fourth quarter and Al-Farouq Aminu had his best performance of the season. But it wasn’t enough to outlast the Nuggets (15-7), who escaped with a win after McCollum’s midrange jumper at the buzzer bounced off the rim.
It was the Blazers’ sixth loss in the last nine games.
Despite his last-second miss, McCollum carried the Blazers in the make-or-break fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his game-high 33 points. McCollum made 14 of 21 shots, including 6 of 8 in the fourth.
Aminu finished with a season-high 20 points and seven rebounds and Jusuf Nurkic added 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Blazers, who shot 53 percent from the field.
Gary Harris scored 27 points, Paul Millsap had 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists and Nikola Jokic added 15 points, eight assists and six rebounds for the Nuggets, who won the first game of a five-game West Coast trip.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
The red-hot Nuggets torched the Blazers in the first half with a bevy of three-pointers and drives to the hoop, building a 17-point lead along the way. But, just as they did during a comeback win over the Magic on Wednesday, the Blazers chipped away at the lead in the second half, and when McCollum hit a 15-footer with 55 seconds left the game was tied 108-108.
The final 55 seconds were a blur of back-and-forth buckets, with Jamal Murray hitting a couple free throws here and McCollum converting a driving layup there, and neither team was able to close things out.
But the biggest shot came with with 16.5 seconds left. After Nurkic was whistled for a kick ball on defense, the Nuggets worked the ball to Jokic on the perimeter. He hesitated and faked an open three-pointer, drawing the Blazers’ defense, then ran toward the hoop. Before reaching the paint, he kicked the ball to the corner, where Harris stood wide open, and the Nuggets’ guard swished a three-pointer to give them a 113-110 lead.
McCollum answered with a dunk, trimming the lead to 113-112 with 10.2 seconds left, and Murray inexplicably committed a turnover with 5.7 seconds left, stepping out of bounds under pressure.
That set up the final shot.
The final possession started with 5.7 seconds left, after coach Terry Stotts drew up one of the Blazers’ commonly-used inbound plays out of their “Get” action.
Lillard inbounded the ball along the baseline and passed to Nurkic, who immediately handed the ball back to Lillard.
The Blazers’ All-Star point guard looped around Nurkic toward the hoop, drawing help defense from Mason Plumlee. Lillard darted toward the basket but ran into a crowd of defenders, so he kicked the ball out to McCollum on the wing.
McCollum elevated and fired … bricking a potential game-winner at the buzzer.
“Coach drew up a little spread action where I run to the corner and come off the double (team),” McCollum said. “(Aminu) slips and then Dame hits Nurk and comes around for a little handoff. Dame turned the corner, ran into a crowd, and kicked it to me. I missed an open 18-footer.”
Did the shot feel good?
“Every shot I shoot feels good,” McCollum said. “But a little to the right, a little short. I should have made it.”
Lillard said he thought about stepping back and creating a one-on-one chance against Plumlee, but decided it would not have created the best option.
“It was a baseline out of bounds play that we run a lot this year,” Lillard said, describing the last play. “There was action on the backside to see what we had there, see if we could catch them sleeping. If not, hit Nurk on the elbow and it was our same ‘Get” action. I got it. I knew Mase was going to switch out aggressively. Thinking about it, I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll have time to catch it and pull back.’ But I feel like that would have been to his advantage if I would have caught it with that much time and tried to line him up. I kept going, I turned the corner (and) they were so tight on the weakside, I saw CJ. And he got a good look. It just didn’t fall.”
HOT START FOR NUGGETS
The Nuggets’ fast and fun and free style was on full display from the opening jump as they wasted little time attacking the Blazers in waves. With Millsap dominating inside and out, Jokic mixing post moves with pretty passes and the Nuggets’ guards taking turns punishing the Blazers all over the court, Denver snatched control of the game from the beginning.
The Nuggets did plenty of damage inside, racking up 26 points in the paint, but they were most lethal from the three-point line. Denver made 8 of its first 11 shots beyond the arc and finished 9 of 15 in the first half. Many of the shots were wide open as the Blazers’ defense — which has been susceptible to three-pointers in recent games — was either confused by the Nuggets’ attack or simply a step slow. The Nuggets shot 55 percent from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, before halftime.
The result: a stunning 68-53 lead. The 68 points are the second-most the Blazers have allowed in the first half this season, trailing only the 72 they surrendered in a 143-140 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
It was yet another slow start for the Blazers, who needed a halftime tongue-lashing from Stotts to overcome an 11-point deficit against the Magic.
The Blazers open a two-game Texas trip on Sunday, when they visit the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center at 4 p.m.