For the second straight series the Denver Nuggets were down 2-1 and facing a must-win Game 4 on the road. For the second straight series Denver used a strong second half to pull out a win and grab back homecourt advantage.
Sunday night’s 116-112 win in Portland tied the Western Conference semifinal series 2-2. All the Nuggets need to do is hold serve at home against the Trail Blazers and they’ll be in the conference finals for the first time in 10 years.
It starts with Game 5 on Tuesday night in Denver.
Denver took back control of the series following an epic four-overtime loss in Game 3 on Friday night. The marathon game took 3 hours and 25 minutes, with the Nuggets having leads late in regulation, the third overtime and the fourth overtime.
Game 4 came less than 48 hours later but neither team looked fatigued. Denver center Nikola Jokic logged 65 minutes on Friday night and then played 39 of the 48 Sunday. He finished with his second consecutive triple-double and now has four in the playoffs.
“I think it’s not quitting. We have a lot of competitive guys who don’t want to lose. I think we don’t want to lose more than we like to win — which is weird,” Jokic said after Sunday’s win. “We just didn’t want to have the excuse that we lost because of four overtimes, because we were tired.”
One more triple-double and Jokic will tie Magic Johnson for the most by a player in a playoff debut.
Denver might need another gem from Jokic to take Game 5. The Trail Blazers have proven they can win on the road — they’re 2-2 in these playoffs — and haven’t had a dominant game from guard Damian Lillard since he scored 39 in Game 1.
Lillard averaged 28 points in the two games in Portland but was a combined 19-for-46 shooting overall and missed 12 of his 16 attempts from 3-point range.
Denver is taking away as much space as possible from the point guard. When he got space in the first round against Oklahoma City, he made the Thunder pay, so the Nuggets are making him take more contested shots.
“They’re trying to show bodies and make me play in a crowd,” Lillard said after Sunday’s game. “Find the open man, that’s what I’m trying to do. Trying to see where the help is coming from, see where the other guy is coming from and make that play. And still just find a way to be aggressive and look for shots. Don’t let them turn me into a passive player. I can definitely see them trying to be a little more aggressive and have more bodies around me.”
The beneficiary of that defense has been Lillard’s backcourt mate, CJ McCollum. McCollum is averaging 30 points over the last three games, including a playoff career high of 41 in Game 3.
Jokic has had some help, too. Jamal Murray had 34 points in Game 4 and hit all 11 of his free throws and six straight in the last 13 seconds to hold off the Blazers. Murray is playing with bumps and bruises, but the 22-year-old guard has shown toughness.
Denver will need that toughness and a lot more to keep control of the series.
“You think about how young we are and what we are doing, going on the road and winning a tough game in a hostile environment, and for Jamal to be the centerpiece of that has been phenomenal,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said Sunday.