When the Nuggets play defense, their opponent is as cooked as a Christmas ham.
Behind another impressive defensive effort, the Nuggets knocked off the visiting Trail Blazers, 120-107, for their third win in a row and sixth in their last seven games. Now 20-11, they’ll get a day to reset before hosting the Suns in a marquee matchup on Christmas.
“Our guys understand that if we want to be a great team, defense has to be at the forefront,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
Nikola Jokic, per usual, paced the Nuggets with a team-high 29 points and 11 assists, but it was the dual returns of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray that made his night so much easier than normal.
Porter, who hadn’t played in 13 games due to a nagging heel injury, dropped 18 points and grabbed five rebounds. His energy, particularly in the third quarter, was infectious.
Murray, who missed last game while tending to his surgically repaired knee, was electric. He poured in 25 points, whipped 12 assists and snatched eight rebounds, flirting with what would’ve been his first career triple-double.
“I just wasn’t in pain,” he said after playing nearly 40 minutes on Friday night.
Damian Lillard had a game-high 34 points, but the collective defensive effort, including a swarming Bruce Brown, helped limit his efficiency. The Blazers shot just 45% from the field, including only 25% from 3-point range. In the second half, the Blazers scored just 43 points total.
Prior to the game, Malone was asked what he was most looking forward to regarding Porter’s return.
“I’m just happy for him,” Malone said, citing his arduous injury history and the admirable perspective he’s had dealing with his latest injury.
In the third quarter, it paid dividends. Porter was on the floor for a loose ball, he found easy baskets inside, he finished through contact and he kicked ahead for an easy Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 3-pointer.
He was instrumental as the Nuggets ripped off a 25-7 run to start the third quarter. If he wasn’t overwhelming the Blazers with his length, then it was Murray picking apart their defense with his savvy scoring. Murray scored 12 in the third quarter alone. Together, Murray and Porter flashed how devastating the Nuggets can be when healthy. As a team, the Nuggets stymied Portland, holding the Blazers to just 16 points in the third.
Denver carried a 93-80 lead into the fourth as a result.
Malone didn’t mince words when assessing Lillard’s devastating impact prior to the game.
“Against Dame, you almost have to commit two defenders to him at times,” he said.
The Nuggets didn’t go that far, but Aaron Gordon, Caldwell-Pope, Murray and Brown all saw time on Portland’s all-time leading scorer to start. Still, Lillard poured in 20 points in the first half to help pace the Blazers’ 64-58 lead at the break.
The strategy, according to Malone, was to limit his teammates’ effectiveness. But Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic each reached double-digits as well in the first half, shooting 56% as a team.
Jokic countered with a team-high 13 points and five assists. Midway through the second quarter, he caused a momentary scare when he landed on Nurkic’s foot and came up hobbling. The concern was short-lived, even though it looked like Nurkic didn’t give Jokic the requisite space to land on a short jumper.
Murray took full advantage of his extra rest. He looked spry and hungry and better yet, unselfish. He authored a team-high nine assists in the first half, playing both among the starters and staggering with the reserves. Murray’s playmaking was essential as Denver’s bench outscored Portland’s 18-8 over the first two quarters.