Thrilling Blazers-Nuggets Matchup Is the Series the NBA Playoffs Needed

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2019

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, center, passes the ball away from Denver Nuggets forward Mason Plumlee, left, center Nikola Jokic, second from left, and forward Torrey Craig, right, during overtime of Game 3 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series Friday, May 3, 2019, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — How do you process a four-overtime playoff game?

That's the question the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets have been faced with in the hours following Friday night's nearly unprecedented 140-137 Blazers win, the first four-overtime playoff game since 1953. It was just the latest wild twist in what has been, despite its lower national profile, the best series of the 2019 NBA playoffs.

"I don't remember what happened in the first half," Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said afterward. "Or the second half. Or the first three overtimes."

It was that kind of night at the Moda Center. A day later, it's still a blur for everybody. There were some huge shots on both sides, from Nuggets forwards Will Barton and Paul Millsap and Blazers guards C.J. McCollum and Rodney Hood. There were also spectacular performances from each team's stars—McCollum put up a game-high 41 points, while Nuggets center Nikola Jokic finished with 33 points, 18 rebounds, 14 assists and, most notably, a game-high 65 minutes, staying on the floor until he had nothing left.

Beyond that, details are fuzzy, but the stakes are clear for the rest of the series.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone admitted after the game that Jokic's workload, more than double his season average of 31.3 minutes per game, was too much.

"In that moment, you don't think that you are tired or how much you have played," Jokic said. "You just want to give everything you've got in the moment. You don't think about the exhaustion or how tired you are."

Jokic had no choice. Neither did his teammates, who also logged minute totals higher than an NBA-regulation 48-minute game. Jamal Murray played 55 minutes. Gary Harris played 50 before fouling out in the third overtime. The 34-year-old Millsap played 49.

What choice did they have? This game didn't start out as do-or-die for the Nuggets, but by the second or third overtime, it was getting close.

If Denver had ground out a win in this marathon, Malone could have taken it easy on his regulars in Sunday's Game 4 and then gone back to Denver with the series, at worst, tied 2-2 and home-court advantage intact, feeling good about their position. But a loss like this, on the road to go down in the series, creates an even greater sense of urgency on Sunday for a team whose best shot through four overtimes fell just short.

Now, the Blazers and Nuggets must recover, both physically and mentally, from the most grueling game any of them have ever played in on a 36-hour turnaround. Not only do the Blazers have the psychological edge of having won Friday's historic thriller, but they also have the mathematical one as well. Their worst-case scenario is going into Game 5 on Tuesday with the series tied. A Denver loss on Sunday would see the Nuggets go down 3-1, all but assured to lose the series.

If they thought they had to dig deep to battle through four overtimes, they'll have to do even more on Sunday.

PORTLAND, OREGON - MAY 03: Damian Lillard #0 and CJ McCollum #3 of the Portland Trail Blazers tie up Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets during the third overtime of game three of the Western Conference Semifinals at Moda Center on May 03, 2019 in Port
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

And just like that, the series with the least star power—outside of Damian Lillard—between two small-market teams has outstripped the other high-profile second-round matchups as the one to watch for diehard basketball fans.

Going into the conference semifinals, all eyes were on the Western Conference's other matchup, the one between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, a rematch of last year's epic seven-game Western Conference Finals between two heavyweights. Maybe that series is still compelling if you like protracted discussions of "landing space," strategically leaked audits of officiating reports and news cycles built around the announcement of the names of the referees working the games. Otherwise, it's hard to get too excited about a series filled with aggrieved customers asking to speak to a manager.

The Blazers-Nuggets series doesn't feel like a referendum on both teams' pasts, presents and futures. There's no free-agency drama hanging over either of these teams, no frenzied speculation about Kyrie Irving's future in Boston, Kevin Durant's future in Golden State, Kawhi Leonard's future in Toronto or Jimmy Butler's future in Philadelphia that hangs over each result in the other series and changes wildly depending on the outcome of the game.

In the other series, every loss has led to widespread blame for one or two players who failed to perform to expectations, as seen by the endless discussion of James Harden's postseason drop-off in Houston and yet another disappointing playoff performance by Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. The Blazers-Nuggets series has been all about role players unexpectedly stepping up. Hood's 19 points off the bench in Game 3, including seven in the fourth overtime, sealed the win for Portland. On the other side, Harris and Torrey Craig have played stellar defense on Lillard and shown themselves to be up to the task.

No matter how the rest of the series shakes out, both teams should feel great about where they are. Portland overcame the devastating late-season loss of starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a gruesome leg injury to stay in contention, and Lillard delivered a first-round playoff performance for the ages, including one of the greatest shots in postseason history to put away the Oklahoma City Thunder. They've rallied around Nurkic's replacement, Enes Kanter, who has battled admirably through a separated shoulder to reverse his longstanding reputation as a player who can't be on the floor in the playoffs.

Even if their odds of beating the Warriors are slim should they reach the Western Conference Finals, this run has been a shot in the arm for a Blazers core that had previously looked to be stagnating. Lillard has placed himself firmly on the map of superstars from a national perspective, and whether they're back in Portland or not, the likes of Kanter, Hood and Seth Curry have earned themselves big new contracts this summer.

For Denver, making the playoffs for the first time in six years and beating the San Antonio Spurs in seven games in the first round is a win, even if Friday's heartbreaking four-overtime loss ultimately spells the end of their playoff run. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, and Jokic proved that at age 24, he's going to be an MVP-caliber talent in the league for years to come. He's backed it up with stellar playoff performances, and the young Denver core of Murray, Harris and Malik Beasley has gained valuable postseason experience.

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 3: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets looks on against the Portland Trail Blazers during Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 3, 2019 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO U
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Title teams don't happen overnight—even the Warriors endured several years of losing in the first and second round of the playoffs before becoming the historically dominant leviathan they've been for the past half-decade. The Nuggets should feel great about this group and the position they'll be in going forward.

The NBA playoffs can get bogged down by storylines that look too far into the future, or fun-sucking talk of referees and video reviews. Blazers-Nuggets has been a refreshing antidote to all of that, just an endlessly fun and exciting battle between two very good teams unburdened by outsized expectations.

"That game was an instant classic," Malone said after Friday's four-overtime slugfest. "If I was at home watching this game tonight, I would be glued to my TV. This was a great basketball game."

It was indeed a great game, just one in what has been a thrilling series that may be just getting started.

              

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.

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