The Denver Nuggets avoided both an emotional letdown and another Damian Lillard masterpiece .
Forty-eight hours after dispatching the Spurs in their first Game 7 triumph in 41 years, the Nuggets rode a 37-point performance from Nikola Jokic to a 121-113 win over the well-rested Portland Trail Blazers in the opener of their second-round series Monday night.
Lillard, who struck for 50 points, including a 37-footer at the buzzer to oust Oklahoma City in five games, scored two more points than Jokic. But he had a-half dozen turnovers, missed 8 of 12 3-point attempts and Gary Harris blocked his 3 from behind in the closing minute to keep the Trail Blazers from closing in.
“We just made him uncomfortable,” said Jamal Murray, who added 23 points and eight assists for Denver to go with just one turnover.
Despite logging 41½ minutes after playing 43½ two nights earlier, Jokic continued his playoff coming-out party by dominating once more. He made 11 of 18 shots and all 12 of his free throws to go with nine boards and a half dozen assists.
“He’s a sponge,” Paul Millsap said. “He picks it up. He sees how people are playing him and guarding him and he makes the right play every time. That’s what’s great about him — he doesn’t force anything. Everything is going to be the right play. He’s going to make the right reads. He’s like a quarterback out there.
“I consider him like a Tom Brady — he’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads. Commend him for doing that at this stage in his career. It’s unbelievable.”
Denver coach Michael Malone was more concerned about his team’s emotional state than his players’ physical state after a hard-fought series with San Antonio while the Blazers, making their sixth straight playoff appearance, were enjoying nearly a week off.
“Saturday night, an emotional high, winning a Game 7, that was part of my biggest concern about tonight,” Malone said. “Obviously you’re worried about guarding them but how would we react from that emotional hangover? I thought our guys did a pretty good job.”
Game 2 is Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center.
The Nuggets were coming off a 90-86 win over San Antonio 48 hours earlier, their first Game 7 victory since May 3, 1978, against Milwaukee.
That, said Jokic, was “a really good game for us. It’s Game 7 against an experienced team and I think the level of physicality, the level of pace was at a really, really high level that night. It was a really tough game for us to win and we won it. It gave us an example of how we need to play.”
That’s exactly the kind of mettle Malone was looking for from his team, the youngest in the West.
The Trail Blazers got a boost from Enes Kanter, who separated his left shoulder in Game 5 against the Thunder. He scored 26 points in his return to the lineup.
“Enes was terrific, very efficient, finished around the basket playing through the shoulder injury,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I couldn’t have asked any more of him.”
Kanter was more concerned about facing Jokic.
“I didn’t even think about my shoulder,” Kanter said. “It’s the playoffs.”
The game was marred by 30 turnovers, but the Blazers turned 12 takeaways to just six points while the Nuggets turned Portland’s 18 turnovers into 23 points.
“I think today’s game was really sloppy,” Jokic said. “There wasn’t much defense.”
“It was a good offensive game but I thought the turnovers really made the difference,” Stotts said.
Portland: The Trail Blazers lost three of four to the Nuggets in the regular season, but the Nuggets only outscored them by a cumulative six points. … The Trail Blazers outshot the Nuggets 51.9% to 50.6%. …
Denver: The Nuggets are 4-1 at the Pepsi Center in the playoffs after going an NBA-best 37-4 at home during the regular season. … Denver was 27 of 31 from the free throw line. … Back-to-back layups by Lillard pulled Portland to within five points with nine minutes left, but Jokic sank a pair of free throws off CJ McCollum’s flagrant foul sandwiched by a pair of dunks by Mason Plumlee as Denver pushed its lead back to double digits at 107-96.
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