With Nikola Jokic and Damian Lillard sharing the floor in a close game, the expected string of incredible shots didn't fall down the stretch. Instead, it was the Denver Nuggets star who won the game at the free-throw line, helping his team hang on for a 106-105 win.
Jokic rumbled to the basket to draw contact with 40 seconds left, making both attempts to give the Nuggets a 106-103 lead that they would never surrender.
The final seconds weren't without drama however, as a missed Jokic three resulted in a jump ball on the rebound with 8.6 seconds to play. The Blazers would control the tip and race the ball up the floor where Norman Powell would miss a baseline floater at the buzzer, ensuring the Nuggets held on.
It was an important win for the Nuggets and the latest blow for the Blazers who are looking to avoid the Play-In Tournament. Let's jump to some of the takeaways from this one.
25 PTS | 9 REB | 5 AST- Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) April 22, 2021
Joker got the job done.#MileHighBasketball pic.twitter.com/vfBAHc3qLh
Heads slumped in disappointment, the Portland players left their home floor, understanding another golden opportunity had gone to waste.
Dropping to 32-26 on the season, the Blazers are just half a game clear of the Dallas Mavericks in the sixth seed, leaving them on the fringe of the Play-In seeding.
The team has now lost five of their last six games, with three of those losses coming by just one point. Before tonight's narrow defeat, they had lost by the same margin to the LA Clippers and Boston Celtics in the last week, with all three games coming at home.
With Dallas breathing down their neck, the Blazers now find themselves under immense pressure heading into the final weeks of the regular season.
Nuggets spread the offensive load
Denver has improved to an impressive 4-0 since losing star guard Jamal Murray to an ACL tear against the Golden State Warriors last week.
The win against Portland is added to those against Miami and Memphis, proving the Nuggets can still match it with playoff-contending teams despite the loss of their star point guard. Part of the early success has come through a balanced offence, with all five starters scoring in double-digits against the Blazers.
While Jokic led the way with 25, Michael Porter Jr. (17), Will Barton (14), Aaron Gordon (12) and Facundo Campazzo (12) all chipped in with valuable contributions.
Murray's recovery begins
Speaking of Murray, the 24-year-old has undergone surgery to repair the above-mentioned torn ACL, with the 9-12 month recovery process officially underway.
Jamal Murray sends an update after surgery on his torn ACL 🙏 @BeMore27 pic.twitter.com/eMwmadL5Wn- SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 22, 2021
"I personally miss him on the floor. I think the whole team is missing him but, next guy mentality," Jokic told reporters postgame.
Murray was averaging 21.2 points and 4.8 assists per game during the 2020-21 season.
Nuggets make life difficult for Dame
Very rarely can you stop a player as good as Lillard, you can only hope to contain him.
That's exactly what the Denver Nuggets did in this one, holding the superstar guard to 22 points on 9-for-23 shooting. The guard's radar was off from range, finishing just 2-for-10 from deep on his usual array of spectacular long bomb attempts.
"I don't think you guys know how hard it is to score 20 points," Jokic responded postgame when asked about the job the defensive job the team did on Lillard.
It must be noted that it was the return game for Lillard, who had missed the previous three with a hamstring issue.
Austin Rivers debuts
Seeing his first action in over two months, veteran guard Austin Rivers made his debut with the Nuggets, finishing with five points and three rebounds in 13 minutes.
"I've only been here for about a week, but he's already one of the most high-IQ players I've ever been around."- Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) April 22, 2021
Welcome aboard, @AustinRivers25. We think you'll have some fun playing with the MVP.#MileHighBasketball pic.twitter.com/sYJBtLIl8n
Denver remain in pursuit of LA Clippers
The Nuggets solidified their spot in the fourth seed in the Western Conference with the win, improving their record to 38-20 on the season. The four seed would give the team all-important home-court advantage in the first round, but could set them on a collision path with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers, who sit three games behind in fifth.
Denver currently trail the LA Clippers in third by 2.5 games with 14 to play. They will face the Clippers at STAPLES Center in early May in what could be a pivotal matchup down the stretch.
Both teams will have one night off before again going to battle with fellow playoff contenders. Portland will host the Memphis Grizzlies, while Denver will head to San Francisco to meet up with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
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