PORTLAND — Wow, does that feel good.

After a three-game losing streak, a tough stretch of games for Jamal Murray, and a defense struggling to find answers again and again, the Denver Nuggets needed an emotional win in the worst way. Going back and forth with the Portland Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard often feels like a game of roulette when things get close, and Lillard did his part to scare the Nuggets and Nuggets fans half to death.

So it was fitting that, down two in the closing seconds, the ball found Murray. On a play initially designed to go to Nikola Jokić, Murray found himself guarded by Jerami Grant on the left wing. Whether the smart play was to give it to Jokić or not, Murray did what he does best: trust himself in clutch moments to be the player the Nuggets need him to be. Murray dribbled to the sideline, took a stepback three, and drained it to give the Nuggets a 121-120 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers that they desperately needed.

“It was an understatement to say, a much needed win after losing three in a row,” Michael Malone shared with media postgame. “I felt our fourth quarter defense was outstanding. 21 points allowed.”

Malone continued: “As I told our players, when we don’t turn the ball over and we defend, we’re a really good team. Now, the challenge is to do that a lot more consistently.”

The Nuggets battled turnovers, leaky early defense, and an early shooting slump from Murray, working their way back into the game with timely scoring from Nikola Jokić and Aaron Gordon. Bones Hyland had some good moments late, but then it was Murray stepping up exactly when the team needed him to. A perfect way to end the night.

Here are my three primary takeaways from Denver’s matchup in Portland against the Trail Blazers:

The shot

Malone expanded upon the play that Murray made in the closing seconds, sharing that it wasn’t actually supposed to be for him.

“Obviously, the last play, down two, get the ball to our best player. They do a pretty good job of defending,” Malone stated. “And now it turns into, in my opinion, one of the best two-man combos in the NBA: Nikola and Jamal playing the game, and obviously Jamal with the game-winner.”

The shot Murray attempted was something he’s gone to before.

“Before every game, I watch whoever we’re playing. I watch my highlights of that game or all my actions from that game,” Murray shared postgame. “I was watching the first five games in Portland, and I remembered I hit two shots on [Enes] Kanter from that same spot. I was like, those are two of my favorite shots that i can remember.”

It was a gutsy shot in that situation with the team down two and with Jokić scoring the way he had scored.

“It was a play to get Jok the ball in space,” Murray admitted. “He fumbled it, he kinda just told me to come get it, and then I turned and looked at the clock, I saw I had time so I didn’t have to rush, and I just went into my move.”

The ball found Jamal Murray tonight over and over again, even when he wasn’t playing well. The Nuggets point guard began the game 2-of-7 from the field, struggling to hit open shots and still looking a bit uncomfortable.

But then in the fourth quarter, he converted a shot at the rim, hit another two, hit a pump fake three, and suddenly, he was ready to go win the game.

“Once Jamal sees the ball go in, it doesn’t take many for him to catch fire,” shared Malone postgame.

Murray hit more shots still, including a clutch two-point jumper to put the Nuggets up with about 45 seconds left.

Murray finished the game with 21 points on 21 shots. The efficiency still isn’t where he wants it to be or needs it to be; however, it’s these moments that can be used as stepping stones going forward. The Nuggets desperately needed him tonight, and he brought them back from a deficit and helped carry them home.

Murray also finished with 35 minutes, his most of the season to date. He played the final 14 minutes in a row, with Malone trusting him after seeing him hit some shots at the beginning of the fourth quarter. He may have been tired, but it was well worth it to experience this moment.

“This was a step in the right direction,” Murray declared.

Nikola Jokić takes his matchup personally

It went under the radar with Lillard and Murray trading punches in the fourth quarter, but Nikola Jokić dominated tonight. 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists, underscored what was a strong, strong performance from Joker. The Nuggets needed somebody to simply get them to the fourth quarter, and Jokić was that guy. He and Jusuf Nurkić went at each other tonight, scoring at will and making some incredible plays. There were some turnovers from Jokić early, but he settled down after that and was extremely effective in every situation the Nuggets needed him to be.

It’s always under-appreciated just how good Joker can be. He made life easier for the Nuggets, and Murray was able to get the shots he wanted to get late because Nurkić couldn’t double him. It was a great example of how both players can compliment each other in both the same and different moments throughout a game.

Damian Lillard catches fire

Last game, it was Anfernee Simons decimating Denver after halftime, scoring 23 points and making seven threes in a single quarter. He won Portland that game then and there because the Nuggets lost focus on him.

Tonight, the Nuggets did a better job on Simons, but they lost track of the Blazers’ best player: Damian Lillard. Dame made five three-pointers in the quarter, hunting threes and using his gravity on the perimeter to create shots for Nurkić and others on the short roll. It was a healthy reminder that Lillard continues to be a thorn in Denver’s side. No matter what defensive coverage they throw at him, he’s breaking down the defense and getting the shots that he needed to get.

The hot shooting in the third continued in the fourth. Lillard hit shots against just about everybody not named Christian Braun, scoring 40 points and dishing 12 assists compared to just one turnover. It was an incredible performance, and perhaps made more incredible that Denver outlasted the heroics with some heroics of their own.

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