Nuggets clinch No. 3 seed, will face Blazers in first round

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reaches in on Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) as forward Torrey Craig (3) chases from behind in the second half at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 4, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reaches in on Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) as forward Torrey Craig (3) chases from behind in the second half at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t the best performance we’ve seen from the Nuggets this season but the Blazers needed this win more than they did and the Nuggets actually benefited from losing.

With Portland winning Sunday night, Denver avoids either playing the Warriors or the Lakers in the first round, but they will be facing the Blazers instead. The last time these two faced off in the playoffs was the 2018-19 season in the Western Conference Semifinals.

“They got a really good team,” Michael Malone said. “We know them extremely well. They know us. We need our starting five to play with a hell of a lot more urgency and care and compete and show up unlike they did tonight. That was really disappointing and unacceptable.”

The Blazers got off to an 11-0 start on Sunday night and the rest is history. They were on fire going 15 of 24 from the field and 9 of 15 from three while holding Denver 9 of 24 from the field and 2 of 9 from long range. Nikola Jokić was the only one contributing for the Nuggets. He scored 12 in the quarter but CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic’s 11 points gave Portland an early 43-22 lead.

“We knew that they were going to come out and play like their playoff lives were on the line because they were,” Malone said. “But prior to tonight, since Jamal Murray went down with an injury, we were 13-4 coming into this game with lots of new players, a lot of guys still out with injuries, and we were a top 10 offense and a top 10 defense. So overall I feel really good with how we finished this season up in light of all the adversity and I’m not going to allow one game and really one quarter to take away from that.” 

Denver did its best to play catchup but the damage was already done from the jump. Portland had the 72-55 lead at halftime and showed no signs of letting up in the second half. Malone rested Jokić, who finished with 21 points, Michael Porter Jr, Facu Campazzo and Aaron Gordon for the entire second half and let his second unit get some playing time. Markus Howard set another career-high with 23 points off the bench.

The Blazers won 132-116 behind CJ McCollum’s 24 points and Damian Lillard’s 22 points and 10 assists. Jusuf Nurkic also had himself a game with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

Jokić played in all 72 games this season, which builds his case for MVP even more. That’s not why he chose to play though. All season long he hasn’t cared about the MVP race. All he has cared about was being there for his teammates and winning basketball games.

“If I’m not hurt I want to play and be available for my team,” Jokić said. “So just to be available that’s a big thing for the rest of the guys.”

The 3x NBA All-Star finished this season averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists and had the number one player efficiency rating in the league. He has set the tone all year and has put up big numbers against quality opponents.

Now, Denver will have almost a full week as the play-in games for the west are set to start on Wednesday, May 19 and end Friday, May 21. The Nuggets plan on taking Monday off and then hitting the gym on Tuesday followed by a team dinner to discuss their first round matchup against Portland. Wednesday, practice begins.

“It’s really important how we use this week to prepare mentally and physically because when game one comes around we’re going to have to have great effort, great energy and we’re going to have to be able to play for 48 minutes because that’s what it’s going to take to win a playoff game and a playoff series,” Malone said.  

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