PORTLAND – The Trail Blazers expected a track meet, but ultimately a tortoise won the race.
On Wednesday, Portland fell to the Denver Nuggets 111-109 after LaMarcus Aldridge missed a potential game-tying bucket that would have matched former teammate’s Andre Miller big shot.
“That’s just Dre,” LaMarcus Aldridge said after the game. “I didn’t think they were going to go to him but once he had it in his hands, he’s so crafty I knew that anything was possible.”
The Nuggets starting backcourt, a pair as fast as any in the NBA, burned the Blazers for 59 points. Andre Iguodala carried the scoring load early and finished with 29 points and eight assists while point guard Ty Lawson ripped through the Blazers’ defense for 30 and six. But the slow and methodical approach from a veteran saved the fast and loose Nuggets.
Miller, the 36-year-old who earlier in the game unwittingly co-starred in a Meyers Leonard highlight, executed an old-school move on the low block – pivoting away from J.J. Hickson to float in a layup. With two chances to tie the score in the final seconds, the Blazers got the man and the location they wanted – the last one, Aldridge from nine feet away. The play appeared similar to the one in which Aldridge scored the game winner against Dallas on Jan. 29, however this time the shot missed short.
“It felt good but ya know, it didn’t go in,” said Aldridge, who missed the pair of patented mid-range jump shots within the final 15 seconds. “That shot hurt more, to try to tie it up and go into overtime.”
The Blazers drop to 26-31, losing their third of four games after the All-Star break in front of an announced crowd of 20,077.
“It was our third good game in a row,” coach Terry Stotts said. “It’s a tough loss, but Denver has been playing well.”
Aldridge scored 22 points while Damian Lillard nearly matched his opponent, Lawson, with 26. Nicolas Batum locked in for well-rounded performance: 10 points, nine assists, six rebounds, five steals and three blocks, and Hickson churned out his 31st double-double of the season of 18 points and 14 rebounds. Despite these personal efforts, the Blazers had no solution for the Nuggets’ fast-break offense.
The Nuggets play the game of basketball as if they’re running from a burning arena. Theirs is a wild pace, ranking second in the NBA in the statistic that measures the number of possessions per 48 minutes. In the day leading up to the game, the Blazers knew to expect the Nuggets’ hyper style, with Lillard even describing how “crazy (it is) to see how fast they really play.”
On Wednesday, Denver turned it up for 22 points in transition (9 for 9 from the field) and 72 in the paint. And yet, their head coach would like to pump more jet fuel into the tank.
“Every game we try to play fast,” George Karl said. “We never play fast enough, for my opinion.”
Not even a key injury could pump the brakes on the Nuggets (37-22).
Denver’s leading scorer Danilo Gallinari participated in the morning shootaround and judging by the words from Karl, he was believed to be ready for the night in spite of a left thigh bruise. However, Gallinari sat out and missed his second consecutive game. On the surface, this was good news for the Blazers. One less attacking wing player to worry about. The only problem – the Nuggets have enough of those types throughout the roster.
Iguodala, a longtime forward playing out of position this season as a shooting guard, sparked the Nuggets through the first quarter with 10 points and four assists. Iguodala, combined with rough shooting starts from Wesley Matthews (1 for 5) and Aldridge (2 for 7), saddled the Blazers with a 31-25 deficit after the opening quarter. And though Portland owned the advantage in the pace subplot, attempting six more shots through the first half, the Nuggets still led 58-50 at halftime.
“We scored, they scored. We needed to take better care of the ball,” said Stotts, after his Blazers committed 19 turnovers. “But we got back in the game because we got some transition and we ran out.”
Iguodala hit a three that gave the Nuggets the 62-53 lead at the 9:40 mark of the third quarter but the Blazers responded with eight straight points. Then, with three rookies on the floor, Portland matched Denver’s breakneck, sometimes reckless, style of play. When Eric Maynor relieved Lillard for the final two and a half minutes of the quarter, the tempo remained high when he connected with one of the youngest players on the court.
Meyers Leonard celebrated his 21st birthday on Wednesday with a career-high 13 points, all field goals coming off dunks. His final one to end the quarter started with a Batum steal then a lead pass from Maynor and shook the sold-out Rose Garden. Leonard extended his left forearm over Miller and slammed with his right hand. He screamed, pounded his chest and stared down Miller as the Blazers only trailed by three points.
But youthful celebrations aside, the old man got the winning play.
Late in the game, Aldridge worked over his defender, Chandler, faking left then spinning towards the middle of the court for the turnaround jump shot that tied the game at 106-106. The teams emerged from a timeout with 33 seconds remaining, then Lawson sent a pass towards the baseline and let Miller take care of the rest. If Leonard’s play pumped up fans, Miller’s put them all to sleep. But, the bucket was effective in the end.
“I was expecting Ty Lawson to use a ball screen and try to make something happen,” Lillard said. “But as soon as I saw the setup that they went into, I knew what was coming.”
“We defended it well but Dre Miller ended up making that layup.”