Trail Blazers Out-Executed in Vintage Damian Lillard-Jamal Murray Duel
Portland lost a heartbreaker to Denver after some incredible shotmaking on both sides.
PORTLAND, Ore. — I haven't seen Chauncey Billups upset too many times this season.
This time a year ago? It was nightly. Those were the days when the first-year head coach would be calling out the Trail Blazers' effort nightly as the double-digit losses piled up. There have been a few bad losses and winnable games Portland has dropped this season, but it hasn't generally gotten to that place.
After Jamal Murray knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer with less than a second remaining on Thursday was the most upset Billups has been after a game.
"It wasn't handled well at all," Billups said. "We're up two. The last shot you can give up is a three. A two doesn't beat us. We're going to overtime. No big deal. We gave up a three-point shot. It was terrible."
Murray's shot was the culmination of a final stretch fitting of the 2019 Blazers-Nuggets second-round playoff series, with Lillard and Murray trading haymakers. There were 15 lead changes in the final six and a half minutes of the fourth quarter after Murray sparked a Denver run to erase an 11-point Blazers lead.
"There are things we can control that we had slippage in, and they took advantage of it," Lillard said. "When a pick-and-roll was happening, we had to be pulled over. We'd be coming over late and sometimes they would get it, or sometimes there would be a foul and they'd see us trailing the play, and then it was a skip to the other side, and we were just behind the play too many times."
Nikola Jokic had a typical Nikola Jokic game—a light 33 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists—but Thursday was a reminder that the Nuggets have an end-of-game shotmaker every bit the threat Lillard is. Just like with Lillard missing most of last year, it was easy to forget going into the season after Murray sat out all of the 2021-22 season rehabbing a torn ACL. But go back to the 2020 bubble and remember those playoff battles with Donovan Mitchell. That's the Murray that showed up in the fourth quarter on Thursday to make the Blazers pay for little lapses in execution down the stretch.
"He hit a tough shot, and we still had a chance," Lillard said. "He hit a tough shot to win it, but there were other things we could have done before to not be in that situation."
I thought something Lillard said after the game about consistency was illuminating. He's in a unique position in his career where he's now the elder statesman in a mostly very young group. In fact, he's the only player older than 30. Thus far, he's been enjoying it and relishing having Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant to share the scoring load. But none of these guys (other than Grant, who was on that Nuggets team in the bubble with Murray) have extensive experience executing in meaningful games. This was not a playoff game, it was a regular-season game in December, but Lillard drew on his first big playoff experience back in 2014. Everyone remembers the career-defining shot to win the first-round series against Houston; not many talk about the buzzsaw the Blazers ran into in the second round in the eventual champion Spurs.
Lillard still thinks about it, and it was a reminder of what everyone knows: the Blazers are not yet where they need to be.
"The experienced, really good teams, even when they're not playing great, they still have a medium where it's solid basketball," Lillard said. "Everybody thinks about the Spurs when I first got in the league. They're not doing nothing special. But they're cutting hard every time and screening. They're making you work. So the execution is still there with everything they did and it kind of kept the level high enough to where they didn't struggle. It takes a mature, experienced team to be that way. Right now, we've got a lot of youth and not a lot of experience being in the mix and being the person that has to do the job. And we're getting better at it, but it takes time to become that type of team."
What We Saw
For paid subscribers, notes, thoughts and observations from the game, plus the Jersey of the Night: