Lillard’s heroics can’t overcome Denver in crucial Game 5

by Charlie Folkestad

In the 2019 Western Conference semifinals, Denver convincingly took Game 5 to go up 3-2 and seemingly bury Portland’s hopes to pull off a series upset.

Once again, Denver came out on fire.

The Nuggets leapt out to a 10-0 (later, 21-9) lead behind a pair of Austin Rivers threes and multiple close misses by the Blazers at the rim.

Firing on all cylinders, the Nuggets looked like they could induce a mercy rule early on.

But the Blazers bounced back, finally getting some stops and making some threes in the latter part of the first quarter.

Denver started out 7/11 from three before missing a pair of open ones on their final possession of the opening period.

The second quarter began as poorly as the first. Denver’s hot shooting continued, as did Portland’s offensive shortcomings.

Even the free throw on a Damian Lillard four-point play escaped the Blazers, who were fortunate to not trail by 30 at the half. At one point, Denver led by 22 in the second (54-32).

The perimeter defense and rebounding were at an all-time worst. Thankfully (and miraculously), three straight open triples clanked out for the Nuggets in a single possession.

Somehow, some way, the Blazers punched back. A 12-0 run capped by a CJ McPull-up three pulled Portland within eight.

The run seemed moreso a product of Denver missing open shots than Portland creating good ones. Still, Jokic’s layup near the 2-minute mark was Denver’s first points in over four minutes.

Said run would be 23-6 by the half’s end, leaving Portland with a comforting 65-62 deficit.

Damian Lillard led the way with 18 points and four assists to combat Michael Porter Jr’s 14, plus 10 apiece from Jokic and Rivers.

Denver’s incessant fouling somehow sped up as the second half began, committing five fouls in two trips back and forth (two offensive, three defensive).

Facundo Campazzo and Norman Powell were particularly feisty, although it was Jusuf Nurkic who left the game at the 8-minute mark with four fouls.

That left Enes Kanter to guard Jokic. Michael Malone called the soon-to-be MVP’s number on three straight possessions, netting six points for the Nuggs.

Portland seized momentum with four minutes to go in the third. A signature Dame stepback three preceded a non-call for Jokic, who whines enough to get a technical foul as Powell tied the game on the other end.

Back-to-back Blazer threes from Lillard and Simons gave Portland a five-point lead with three minutes to go in the third. It seemed like the Blazers were finally pulling away.

Denver would strike back. With Kanter still on Jokic, the Nuggets scrapped to a two-point deficit (96-94) by the end of the third.

The B-team rotations saw Denver go up five, with a JaMychal Green triple forcing a Portland timeout with eight minutes to play.

CJ McCollum was struggling early in the fourth. On two consecutive possessions, he missed baskets that turned into big shots for Denver. On the first possession out of a timeout, he had the rock stolen from him.

CJ would redeem himself soon. After an inexplicable miss under the rim from Paul Milsap, CJ picked up a signature pull-up two on the other end. With six minutes to go, a 7-0 Portland run had evened the score at 105 apiece.

With four minutes to go, Nurkic picked up his sixth foul. It was the third time he’d fouled out with four-plus minutes remaining this series.

The Nuggets would take advantage once again. Austin Rivers hit another clutch three to put the home team up by five with 3:30 to play, and things were looking grim for the boys in red.

Covington now had the task of guarding Jokic the rest of the way. He stole an entry pass on the first possession before giving up two straight baskets to the Serbian giant.

As the clock ticked under a minute and with the Nuggets up two, Jokic was fouled by Melo in the lane. After patching up his bloody elbow, he went to the line and sank both free throws.

A CJ corner three moved the Blazers within one with the shot clock off. A quick foul could set up a potential game-tying three for Portland.

McCollum fouled Monte Morris in the backcourt with 12.4 seconds to go, and the Denver guard sank the crucial pair. Advantage Nuggets, 121-118.

Lillard received the inbound and hoisted up a three, drawing a foul on Rivers. Denver challenged the call and were successful, meaning it was a side-out for Portland with 8.4 remaining.

Dame received the ball again, this time against MPJ. Instead of going for the foul, Portland’s MVP drained a step-back to send the game to overtime.

Out of help, out of luck, and nearly out of time, Damian Lillard had delivered again. But with five more minutes and no more Nurk, things still looked bleak for the Blazers.

In two minutes, McCollum missed two threes and Denver had a commanding six-point lead. Dame missed a hopeful corner fadeaway and Austin Rivers hit yet another massive triple to go up nine.

After scrapping into overtime, the Blazers were crumbling—and Jokic hadn’t even scored in OT.

One bucket from the Joker and a missed putback from RoCo meant the Blazers were almost finished. But Dame Time wasn’t done.

Lillard hit a deep three to cut the lead to five before Morris missed an open finger roll. Dame struck again, hitting a quick three on the other end to keep the game within two. It was 134-132, Denver’s lead and ball, with 22.9 to go.

Morris was fouled again with 16.5 on the clock. He missed the second, giving the Blazers one more chance…

Once again, Damian Lillard rose to the occasion. His 50th point was his prettiest yet—a spinning, whirling fade that splashed home with six seconds left. With no timeouts, Denver wasn’t able to convert.

Ironically, with the huge role fouls played in this game, Shaq Harrison probably fouled Lillard and it went uncalled. Regardless, a second overtime was nigh.

Jokic and Lillard continued their duel in 2OT, exchanging threes and keeping the game knotted. With a minute and a half left, Jokic skipped the ball out of a double-team to find an open Porter Jr in the corner. He hit the three to give Denver a 143-140 advantage.

Another missed RoCo dunk with under a minute left gave Jokic a second chance to ice the game, but he missed again. But this time, CJ received the outlet pass and stepped back out of bounds.

With 10 seconds left, Denver now had the ball and a three-point advantage. It would take an even crazier miracle to salvage this one for the Blazers.

Morris made both of his free throws, and it was finally a five-point lead for Denver with the shot clock off.

CJ missed the three, Rivers got the rebound, and his two free throws iced the game for Denver.

What should have been a legendary victory for Damian Lillard became a testament to the problem that had burdened his career most: the shortcomings of his teammates.

Final score: Denver 147, Portland 140 in double-overtime.

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