DENVER (AP) — Damian Lillard made up for the absence of fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge by scoring 31 points in the Portland Trail Blazers’ 100-95 win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
Lillard scored 12 in the third quarter when it looked as if the Blazers were headed for a blowout win, but he saved his biggest shots for late in the fourth after the Nuggets had trimmed an 18-point deficit to two.
Lillard helped Portland overcome a terrific performance by Denver’s J.J. Hickson, who pulled down a career-high 25 rebounds, including 15 off the offensive glass. Hickson helped the Nuggets to a 64-41 advantage on the glass.
The Blazers again went with a smaller lineup with Aldridge missing his fourth straight game with a strained left groin, and Dorell Wright helped make up for Aldridge’s team-high 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds by giving Denver another long-range shooter to defend.
As Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said before tip-off when talking about Aldridge’s absence, “There’s a big sigh of relief that you don’t have to deal with that, but at the same time it just creates a different type of problem: They’re one of the best — if not the best — 3-point shooting teams in the league. They’re the best free-throw shooting team in the league. They’re the highest-scoring team in the league.”
Six Blazers scored in double figures, including Nicolas Batum’s 16 points.
Aldridge averaged 34.5 points in the Blazers’ two earlier games against Denver this season and the Trail Blazers missed him in the fourth quarter when it was tougher to close this one out than they had expected when they surged to a 79-61 lead in the third.
Randy Foye led Denver with 17 points.
Denver again was without Ty Lawson, who leads the Nuggets with averages of 18 points and 8.8 assists. He’s missed seven straight games with a broken rib.
Shaw also made a big change with his big man, starting 7-foot-1 Timofey Mozgov at center in place of Hickson, who had started 52 games in the middle this season despite being undersized.
Hickson is a natural power forward but was pressed into duty at center after JaVale McGee fractured his left tibia five games into the season. He filled in admirably, averaging 11.4 points and 9.2 boards, but he shot just 52 percent from the free-throw line, and Shaw said that “affected his confidence rolling to the basket aggressively and running the floor because maybe he doesn’t want to get fouled.”
Hickson scored 16 points and Mozgov, who was averaging 8.6 points and 5.8 rebounds, finished with 14 points and six boards.
The Nuggets never led after the opening minutes but they did make it interesting in the final period. Evan Fournier’s pair of free throws with just over four minutes remaining capped a 15-2 run that pulled Denver to 86-84.
Lillard ended the drought with a pair of free throws and then Wesley Matthews hit a pair to make it 90-84 with 3:39 left.
After back-to-back buckets by Denver’s Kenneth Faried, Lillard hit a finger-roll layup for a 92-88 lead, and the Nuggets never got any closer.
NOTES: The Nuggets announced plans to honor their 1993-94 team that was the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed with an upset of the Seattle SuperSonics in the playoffs that year. The Nuggets will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that upset on March 17 when they host the Clippers. … Shaw said on 104.3 The Fan in Denver that at times he’s had to get his players off the bus and send them back onto the team plane “because it’s not the flight attendants’ job or the flight crew to clean up after these guys.” He used the anecdote as a way to say his players need to pay more attention to detail.
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