I might be caught up in what I just saw, but as of this very moment, I’m declaring the Tuesday night Game 5 battle between the Nuggets and Trail Blazers the craziest NBA basketball game I’ve ever seen. The Nuggets, somehow, won the game, 147-140, in double overtime, despite Michael Malone hamstringing his team with two of the worst coaching decisions imaginable and Damian Lillard scoring 55 points with an NBA postseason record 12 made 3-pointers.
Denver leads the series 3-2.
I have no idea how Portland recovers from this.
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Back to Lillard. This freaking guy. If you were one of the unfortunate souls who chose to watch LeBron James and the Lakers get worked by the Suns rather than tune into Dame time (assuming you have NBA TV as part of your cable package), may the basketball gods have mercy on your soul. You might never get another chance to witness a performance like this as long as you live.
In addition to his 55 points, Lillard added 10 assists, six rebounds, three blocks and a steal, making him the first player in history to record at least 50 points, 10 assists and 10 made 3-pointers in a single game, regular season or postseason, per ESPN Stats and Info.
Also, Lillard had one — one — turnover in 52 minutes with the ball in his hands for damn near every one of them. And it’s not like the guy was jacking up shots to break Klay Thompson’s previous postseason record of 11 3s; Lillard shot 12 of 17 from deep and 17 of 24 overall. It was pure madness.
Circling back to Malone’s inexcusable coaching decisions, the first one came with under 10 seconds to play in regulation. The Nuggets had a 3-point lead. The Blazers had the ball. I shouldn’t have to spell this out, but you foul here every single time. It’s quite possibly the dumbest loophole in sports that a team can commit an act designed to be detrimental to its own success as a way of blocking an opposing team’s opportunity to tie the game, but that’s the rule. You take advantage of it.
Allowing Lillard, the most clutch player in the universe who regularly makes mind-bending shots look routine, an opportunity to take a potential tying shot is insanity. But Malone did it, and here’s what it got him:
Look how long Lillard just stood inside the logo. Michael Porter Jr. had all the time in the world to rush up and foul Lillard. Malone said after the game he was worried about Lillard getting fouled and hitting the shot for a potential game-winning 4-point play. That’s just not a good enough excuse. Lillard is just standing there. If Porter isn’t giving him all that space, he’s perfectly positioned to use his discretion in fouling Lillard before he goes into an impromptu shooting motion. If you track him harder off the pass, switch, put two on him, whatever you have to do, you can foul him the very second he catches the ball.
There’s no excuse.
But OK, fine. He got you once. Surely, if Malone were to find himself in this spot again, he would learn his lesson and change his strategy, right? Right? I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but sure enough, at the end of the first overtime, the Nuggets once again had a three-point lead with under 10 seconds to play and once again had a chance to foul Lillard. He even did Denver the courtesy of stepping inside the 3-point line with his back turned, meaning even if he were to spring into a quick shot, the foul would still only net two free throws. Nope. They let him do it again …
That the Blazers didn’t win this game is a national shame, but we would be remiss to ignore how awesome the Nuggets played. Nikola Jokic, with 38 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in 46 minutes, was masterful, doing his best to call Lillard nearly every time he upped the ante.
Monte Morris? Good god. This man is a treasure to have coming off the bench. He finished with 28 points, five assists and his customary zero turnovers. He hit monster shots. So did Porter, who finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds on 10-of-13 shooting from the field. And Austin Rivers, who chipped in 18 and on 4 of 4 from 3. And these weren’t a bunch of first-quarter 3s. These were game-on-the-line 3s with the tension ready to snap.
Still, if you’re the Blazers, and Lillard plays like that, you have to win that game. There are fingers to point. C.J. McCollum was bad with 18 points on 7-of-22 shooting, including 2 of 8 from 3, to go with a gut-punch turnover with the Blazers down three and 10 seconds to play in overtime. (Lillard passed it to McCollum, who stepped out of bounds, and I’ll forever be trying to figure out why Lillard gave the ball up considering what he had done in this game).
Robert Covington smoked not one, but two point-blank shots by trying to dunk the ball through the ground rather than making sure he got the bucket(s). Jusuf Nurkic fouled out for the third time in the series. With the game on the line, Portland has Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony trying to guard Jokic.
They did the best they could. It was smart not to double Jokic most of the night, and for most of this series, and force him to beat you as a scorer rather than allowing him to get the whole train rolling by slicing Portland up with passes … but when it comes down to it, those are mismatches that illuminate how short Portland GM Neil Olshey has fallen in terms of putting a championship team around Lillard, who scored 17 points over the two overtimes on 6-of-8 shooting while his teammates scored a combined 2 points on 1-of-14 shooting.
The collective talent just isn’t there. The Blazers are good, but not great, and they haven’t take enough risks — if any at all — to honestly pursue the latter. Portland is a tough place to draw players, trades aren’t easy, and there were a lot of cap restraints for a lot of years following the 2016 offseason debacle (Olshey’s doing). But this is a results business. Lillard is one of the best players on the planet, and every year he’s asked to work miracles to win first-round series; sometimes just to make the playoffs. You don’t have to win a championship to be great, but if you’re as great as Lillard, you at least deserve a legitimate shot, especially in the post-Warriors era.
Instead, Lillard now resides in the annals of dubious honors as the only player in history to put up at least 55 points and 10 assists in a loss, regular season or playoffs. Think about that. It had never happened. Until now. As I said at the top, I have zero idea how the Blazers bounce back from this for Game 6 on Thursday. If they win that game, it will be one of the most resilient wins ever. I’m not going to rule it out. I don’t rule anything out with Lillard. For obvious reasons. But for now, this one stings if you’re a Blazers fan. If you’re a Nuggets fan, you’re euphoric. If you’re Malone, you’re thankful, because you got away with one. Or two, actually.
If you’re just an NBA fan, man, you just witnessed a true classic. There’s just no other way to say it. That game, for so many reasons, was un-freaking-believable.