The Denver Nuggets walked into the locker room at halftime of Game 2 of their first-round playoff series against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers with a lead — but also had the inescapable presence of Damian Lillard’s supernova first half simmering in the air.
Lillard had the flamethrower set to maximum heat, firing in eight 3-pointers en route to 32 points on a scorching 9-for-16 shooting in the opening half. So for Nuggets coach Michael Malone and his staff, who are quite familiar with the difficulties of game-planning for Lillard, an adjustment to the adjustment was necessary.
Forward Aaron Gordon made it simple for them.
“I got him,” he told the coaching staff.
The move paid off, with Lillard hitting only one 3 after halftime as the Nuggets pulled away for a 128-109 win to even the series at one game apiece.
“Going into Game 2, we met this morning and we talked as a staff, ‘Let’s give him different looks.’ [Facundo Campazzo], he brings something different to the table; he’s smaller, but he’s into you. Austin Rivers brings more size,” Malone said. “But at halftime, after the 32-point first half, we said, ‘You know what, let’s throw Aaron Gordon on him.’ That’s one of the reasons we brought AG here is that defensive versatility. And obviously, he embraced it, he wanted it. That’s the best part about it: This is something Aaron Gordon has been wanting to do.”
Gordon was a key deadline addition for the Nuggets, adding back the kind of physical wing versatility they were missing after losing Jerami Grant in free agency to the Detroit Pistons. Of Lillard’s 32 first-half points, 17 came with Campazzo as his primary defender. With Gordon switching to take over the primary assignment, Lillard scored 10 points in the second half.
“I think they just gave me more attention, more so than it was just one guy,” Lillard said. “I’m never going against one guy.”
It looked like almost a sure thing Lillard would challenge Klay Thompson’s NBA playoff record of most 3-pointers in a game, set at 11 in 2016. (Lillard did tie Vince Carter for the most 3s made in a playoff half, though.) But not only did Lillard make just one 3 after the break, he struggled to find the space to even attempt treys, getting off only five looks in the second half.
“I expect it to continue,” Lillard said. “Just moving around more off the ball, getting more off-ball sets. Usually bigger guys can use their length and athleticism on the ball, but when you start to move around on flares and pindowns and things like that, typically you can get a little bit of space.”
Lillard finished with 42 points on the night, but he was met step for step along the way by Nikola Jokic, who bounced back after the Blazers’ schemed him into a playoff career-low one assist in Game 1. Jokic cruised to 38 points on 15-of-20 shooting in 31 minutes, while adding eight rebounds and five assists, as the Nuggets rediscovered their lethal balance.
“I know much was made of the one assist in Game 1, and I think that was an outrageous narrative,” Malone said. “In order to get an assist, you have to make shots. We struggled to make shots in Game 1.”
While Lillard put on his second-quarter light show on Monday, Jokic and the Nuggets churned away, winning the second quarter 42-36. It was a shining example of the Blazers’ main prevailing issue throughout the regular season of inconsistent defense to go with their high-level offense.
“I had a great run, but they outscored us that quarter,” Lillard said. “We didn’t get stops. I think it’s a perfect example that you can fill it up, but when you trade baskets with a good team like them, especially on the road with their backs against the wall, you’re probably not going to win that.”
After Game 1, the Nuggets took a clear approach to play with more force, setting an early tone. Blazers coach Terry Stotts said his team just wasn’t able to respond to Denver’s intensity.
“The reality is they were the more aggressive team. Their starters were more aggressive; their bench was more aggressive,” Stotts said. “They played much better than they did in Game 1, and they deserved to win the game. We can point to a lot of different things, but they outplayed us top to bottom — other than Dame’s 40.”
The first half wasn’t only about the haymakers Lillard and Jokic were throwing, though. Both teams had to be separated in the first quarter as a mini-scuffle broke out following some words Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic had with opposing players during a timeout. It led to Portland assistant coach Nate Tibbetts getting involved. Double technical fouls were handed out, one each to Michael Porter Jr. and Nurkic.
“That right there was a playoff game. The intensity, you had two high-level players in Damian Lillard and Nikola Jokic playing at their respective levels,” Malone said. “The crowd was great. But it was chippy. And that’s the way it should be. We’re both fighting for something. That’s the way the playoffs should be. I loved it. That’s my kind of game right there.”
Game 3 is Thursday in Portland.