Nikola Jokic's 36 Points Lead Nuggets to 2-1 Series Lead over Damian Lillard, Blazers

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVMay 28, 2021

PORTLAND, OR - May 27: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets high fives Monte Morris #11 of the Denver Nuggets and Aaron Gordon #50 of the Denver Nuggets during the game against the Portland Trail Blazers during Round 1, Game 3 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on May 27, 2021 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets are back in control of their first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Denver leads 2-1 after its 120-115 victory in Thursday's Game 3 at Moda Center. Nikola Jokic and Austin Rivers led the way for the Nuggets, who have now bounced back from their opening loss in Game 1 with two straight wins.

Another notable showing from Damian Lillard was not enough for the Trail Blazers, who relinquished home-court advantage after earning a split in the first two contests on the road.

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Who else but the MVP to close it out <br><br> pic.twitter.com/Ct72uBhkkI

Notable Player Stats

  • Nikola Jokic, C, DEN: 36 PTS, 11 REB, 5 AST
  • Austin Rivers, G, DEN: 21 PTS, 5-of-10 3PT
  • Michael Porter Jr., F, DEN: 15 PTS, 5 REB
  • Damian Lillard, G, POR: 37 PTS, 5 AST, 2 STL
  • Jusuf Nurkic, C, POR: 13 PTS, 13 REB, 6 AST

Jokic's Start and Rivers' Finish Clinch Win for Denver

Thursday was another opportunity for Jokic to prove why he is the likely MVP this season.

Denver's backs would have been firmly against the wall after losing Game 1 if he didn't rescue his team with 38 points in a dominant performance in Game 2. It was more of the same right out of the gates in Game 3, as the big man staked the visitors to a halftime lead with 16 points on an array of three-pointers, soft-touch jumpers and moves on the blocks.

It wasn't a solo effort with Michael Porter Jr. and the rest of the team taking advantage of the space created by the attention Jokic draws on every possession.

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Have yourself a quarter, @AustinRivers25 🔥 pic.twitter.com/2YTURAYG1w

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

LET IT FLY AUSTIN pic.twitter.com/Bzt4h6j6b2

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We want all the JOK3R content pic.twitter.com/M7mIcvHSx1

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Which dime do we like more? pic.twitter.com/VKvAhiCadE

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BIG MPJ putback 😤 pic.twitter.com/LZ4cXCdYAo

Nine different Nuggets hit a three-pointer in the first half, and Jokic continued to flutter in outside shots during the third quarter. There was a stretch when it was surprising if he even hit the rim, which helped push the lead to double digits.

Yet Denver was unable to pull away because the rest of the team was nowhere to be found in the third quarter. Jokic was the only Nugget with more than 12 points heading into the fourth in a game it should have put away before Dame Time was even a threat on the other side.

And then Rivers showed up.

The veteran poured in 16 points in the fourth quarter alone and hit four triples in the final six minutes to turn a tie game into a win. It was just the type of performance from secondary players this team will need throughout the playoffs if it is going to succeed without the injured Jamal Murray, and the Nuggets lead the series as a result.

Portland's Comeback Push Falls Just Short

The biggest question for Portland entering Thursday's swing game was how much production it needed from the backcourt to take the lead in the series.

After all, 42 points and 10 assists from Lillard and 9-of-12 shooting from CJ McCollum weren't enough in Game 2 as the supporting cast struggled to make a significant impact. Norman Powell and Jusuf Nurkic at least made sure it wasn't just a two-man show in the first half, with the former attacking the basket and the latter doing his best Jokic impersonation by facilitating as a big man.

That, along with 34 combined first-half points from the two guards, still wasn't enough to take a lead into intermission because Denver's bench outplayed Portland's by so much from the start.

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Melo ties it up and he's HYPED 😤 pic.twitter.com/KKe5ctNjxV

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McCollum’s in-and-out move is too clean 🥶 pic.twitter.com/h5afcMj3cz

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DAME GOT UP 😳 pic.twitter.com/kALAZPG4SF

Portland Trail Blazers @trailblazers

Solid end to the half pic.twitter.com/jnEbFMMqir

Portland Trail Blazers @trailblazers

N🔨RM pic.twitter.com/QPICxx5aXg

The Trail Blazers' porous defense was also an issue and put more pressure on the offense, but they were much better on that end of the floor in the third quarter. They still couldn't take full advantage in that third when the initial offense went missing for stretches because the bench continued to struggle.

To his credit, Carmelo Anthony flipped the script for that bench in the fourth with multiple threes, the second of which tied the game with fewer than seven minutes left.

However, Rivers' stretch of hot shooting gave Denver the lead right back before Portland made one final push with three-pointers from Anthony, Lillard and McCollum in the last 30 seconds to cut a nine-point deficit to three.

It would have had one more chance at a tie after Monte Morris missed two straight free throws to clinch it, but an inability to box out Jokic allowed the big man to tip in the rebound and end the Trail Blazers' frantic finish.

What's Next?

Game 4 of the series is Saturday in Portland.