Damian Lillard Drops 32 as Trail Blazers Force Game 7 vs. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

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PORTLAND, OR - MAY 9: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers handles the ball against the Denver Nuggets during Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 9, 2019 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

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The Portland Trail Blazers ensured their season wouldn’t end on their home floor Thursday and forced a Game 7 in their second-round showdown with the Denver Nuggets.

Portland tied the series at three apiece with a 119-108 victory in Game 6 at the Moda Center, snapping Denver’s two-game winning streak in the process.

Damian Lillard (32 points, five assists and six made three-pointers) and CJ McCollum (30 points, six rebounds and three assists) led the way for the Trail Blazers like they have all season. Rodney Hood added 25 points off the bench, helping Portland maintain control in the second half.

Nikola Jokic (29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists) challenged for a triple-double for the Nuggets, but it wasn’t enough to win on the road.

           

Dame Gives Blazers Clear Tactical, Mental Edge Entering Game 7

Welcome back, Mr. Lillard.

Portland’s point guard was the biggest storyline of the first round of the playoffs as he battled and trash-talked Russell Westbrook before eliminating the Oklahoma City Thunder in dramatic, buzzer-beating fashion. That he literally waved the Thunder off the court only made it more memorable.

It was easy to envision Lillard dueling with Stephen Curry or James Harden in the Western Conference Finals at that moment, but getting past Denver has been an issue.

He shot an ugly 24.1 percent from three-point range in the first five games and had six turnovers in the Game 1 loss—the one contest he reached the 30-point mark. He followed that effort with a mere 14 points in Game 2.

Denver has pressed on his outside shot and cut off his penetration, and Gary Harris deserves plenty of credit for the defensive effort. The Michigan State product has picked Lillard up full court and used a physical style of defense, much like he did against Derrick White of the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

White exploded for 36 points in Game 3 but scored a combined 37 points the next four contests as Harris hounded him and helped flip the momentum of the series.

Lillard was dealing with much of the same in this series but appeared to solve the defensive riddle when he went into takeover mode and exploded for 17 points in the third quarter alone while giving his team much-needed breathing room in a close battle.

Portland started setting screens farther away from the basket, pulling any help defenders well outside the paint. Lillard launched from beyond 30 feet whenever Harris dared go underneath the screen and aggressively attacked whenever a big was caught in a switch. Just for good measure, he mixed in multiple sidestep three-pointers and lightning-quick pull-ups and floaters when he glided through the lane.

Lillard dialed the aggression up with the season hanging in the balance, and he gives the Trail Blazers the advantage heading into the decisive battle.

The tactical advantage comes from the slight change Portland made in Thursday’s contest, giving him more room to operate and read the defense from the moment he crosses half court. He can either step into long triples or attack, which forces multiple defenders to collapse and opens up looks for McCollum, Hood and others.

Portland also has the mental edge knowing it has a go-to option who has proved he thrives in postseason closeout games.

The All-Star sent the Houston Rockets home with a postseason buzzer-beater three in 2014 as well and is going up against a Nuggets squad that is still relatively inexperienced at this stage of the year outside of Paul Millsap.

Denver hasn’t been this deep in the playoffs since 2009, and Jokic, Harris, Jamal Murray and others will have plenty of pressure on their shoulders playing at home. Home teams are expected to win Game 7s, but Lillard can create early panic from the crowd and the Nuggets if he unleashes a stretch like he did in Thursday’s third quarter.

The recipe is there. Don’t be surprised if Lillard turns in another signature performance and sends Denver packing. 

            

What’s Next?

The series returns to Denver for Sunday’s Game 7.

Read More

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