One of the most impressive aspects of the Denver Nuggets 28-13 start in the first half of the 2018-19 season is the fact that they are a perfect 5-0 in the Northwest Division. They were the only team in the National Basketball Association to stay undefeated in their division, but in order to keep their division record unblemished, Denver would have to find a way to beat the Portland Trail Blazers even though it was Denver’s fifth game in seven days.
It was not easy, but even despite fatigue and a lack of sleep, the Nuggets battled their way to their sixth divisional win of the season. Nikola Jokic, who had one of his best games of his career, carried Denver with another near triple-double. Denver is still the only team without a divisional loss in the NBA thanks to a 116-113 win over the Trail Blazers.
The first quarter was incredibly interesting to start. Nikola Jokic scored Denver’s first six points of the game by taking all six of Denver’s field goal attempts as he attempted to eviscerate Jusuf Nurkic from the get-go. It seemed as if Jokic came in with the intent to attack Nurkic early and often which worked out well as Denver was able to bait Nurkic into two early personal fouls in the first five minutes of the game. Once Nurkic was sent to the bench, it was Al-Farouq Aminu who was tasked with defending Jokic and that matchup went as badly for Portland as anyone would expect.
Jokic was doing a good job on the offensive end of the floor, but Denver’s defense was getting bombarded by 3-point attempt after 3-point attempt. In the first quarter alone, Portland managed to take 12 3-pointers and made five of them which led to the Trail Blazers outscoring Denver by nine points from beyond the arc. Denver shot just 2-of-6 from 3-point distance which was the biggest disadvantage they had in the first quarter of play.
Denver’s once-dominant defense never appeared in the first 12 minutes of the game, but the Nuggets MVP candidate did as Jokic was unstoppable offensively. He carried Denver through a rough start to the first quarter to take an eventual 34-32 lead thanks to his 13 points on 6-10 shooting in his first quarter.
The second quarter was a heavyweight fight. Each team traded punch after punch and neither was able to create much separation. Each team ratcheted up the defense which kept the score close. The biggest issue Denver had in the second quarter was that stye did not play through Jokic nearly enough. After dominating the first quarter, Denver failed to get the ball back to him which led to their offense falling apart.
Denver’s only saving grace on offense in the second quarter was the play of Jamal Murray, who managed to three-straight shots when Denver’s offense was struggling. He pulled them out of what could have been an awful 12-minute stretch, but he still did not do enough to hold Denver’s lead. By the time halftime arrived, the Nuggets trailed the Trail Blazers 60-58.
The third quarter was nearly a carbon copy of the first quarter. It began with a Laymen alley-oop dunk, featured tons of scoring by Jokic, and not much defense at all by either team. Each squad continued to trade bucket after bucket, but Denver had the best player on the floor in Jokic.
As the third quarter progressed, Jokic just continued to eat every defender thrown at him alive. He continued to score at will, create scoring opportunities for his teammates, and played with an incredible amount of energy on defense even though Denver was on the second night of a back-to-back and playing their fifth game in seven nights.
As a cherry on top, when Jokic was not eviscerating everyone in front of him, Denver’s perimeter players were heating up from beyond the 3-point line. Beasley hit two big-time 3-pointers and Will Barton, who was playing his first game back in the Pepsi Center since his injury, added one huge 3-pointer of his own off of a feed from Jokic.
By the time the third quarter came to an end, Denver carried a 93-88 lead thanks to their six 3-pointers in the third frame alone. At one point in the third, Denver and a 10-point lead, but back-to-back mental mishaps by Beasley allowed the Trail Blazers to go on a 5-0 run to end the third quarter.
As expected in a divisional matchup, the Trail Blazers refused just to roll over and die on the road. Thanks to an 11-0 run between the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth quarter, Portland managed to retake the lead. The Nuggets were exhausted, but their divisional matchup with the Trail Blazers was too important and Denver refused to fold.
When things were going bad to begin the fourth quarter, it was Monte Morris who pulled Denver out of their rut. He hit a big floater and drew a charge on the other end which gave Denver a lead after converting on their next offensive possession. Morris’ even-keeled demeanor and propensity to come up big when Denver needs it most has won multiple games for the Nuggets this year and his performance against Portland was more evidence of exactly that.
The final four minutes of the fourth quarter was the Nikola Jokic show as he continued battling on both ends of the floor with everything he had left in the tank. He had nine of Denver’s last 13 points as he carried Denver to a 116-113 win over the Trail Blazers.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Jokic managed to put together one of his more dominant games of the season. He finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists while shooting 15-of-23 from the field and 4-of-7 from the 3-point line. In addition to his insane offensive production, Jokic also played with an incredible amount of defensive energy all night. When Jokic wasn’t scoring, it was Murray and Beasley shouldering the scoring load. Beasley finished with 13 points on 3-of-5 shooting from 3-point range. Murray had 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field.
Next, the Nuggets will have a day off before hosting the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors on Tuesday, January 15th in what will be a massive game with some hefty playoff implications. That game will tip off at 7pm MST at the Pepsi Center.