DENVER • The Nuggets produced a second-half performance only a mother could love Sunday in a season-ending loss to Portland.
The Nuggets went 0 for 9 from 3-point range in the second half of Game 7, missed a couple key free throws down the stretch and allowed the Trail Blazers 15 second-chance points after halftime. The Nuggets finished with 15 assists and went 2 of 19 from deep in a 100-96 loss at the Pepsi Center.
“You have to make shots to get the assists, obviously, to oversimplify it. We made two 3s tonight. I thought the game came down to 21 second-chance points and us missing 11 free throws,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
“Those are two huge areas right there.”
Nikola Jokic, who finished with a team-high 29 points and 13 rebounds, made both of Denver’s 3-pointers, but they came in the first 4 minutes and 30 seconds of the game. Though he led the team in scoring, he shouldered responsibility for the loss. When explaining why he felt that way, he mentioned a late missed free throw Sunday and miscues in a marathon Game 3 loss in Portland.
“I feel responsible just because I think I missed a lot of shots,” Jokic said. “I’m supposed to make some of those. It was a difficult game.”
It started off easy enough.
Gary Harris scored the first bucket, and the Nuggets went on to lead 39-22 early in the second quarter after a reverse layup from Monte Morris.
“Our defense was great, but we couldn’t make any shots,” Malone said.
Portland didn’t start off shooting much better, making just one of its first 19 attempts from deep but went 3 for 7 in the fourth quarter. One of Damian Lillard’s two 3-pointers in the fourth came off an offensive rebound that put the visitors up five.
“Those plays are demoralizing,” Malone said.
CJ McCollum hit the Trail Blazers’ only triple of the first three quarters and kept producing as the Blazers methodically chipped away at Denver’s nine-point halftime lead. McCollum’s floater in the final minute of the third gave Portland its first lead and he made sure the Trail Blazers held on, burying a step-back jumper over Torrey Craig to put Portland up 98-95 with 12.4 seconds left for the last of his game-high 37 points.
“He wanted the ball, and he has the ability to make things happen,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Obviously we went to him down the stretch, and he made some big plays.”
It wasn’t all offense from McCollum, either. He added nine rebounds, an assist and a chase-down block when it looked like Jamal Murray would pull the Nuggets within two with 4:44 to play.
“I wanted to empty the clip tonight, and I thought I did that,” McCollum said before joking with Lillard that his block looked like LeBron James’ rejection of Andre Igoudala in Game 7 of Cleveland’s NBA Finals win over Golden State in 2016.
“Bron style, shoutout to my guy Bron.”
It was one of those nights for Murray, as the 22-year-old capped his first playoff run with a 4-of-18 shooting performance, though he did make all nine of his free throws.
“I didn’t have the game I was supposed to have,” Murray said. “Even when Dame (Lillard) wasn’t having the game he was supposed to have, that’s when we’ve got to take advantage, and we didn’t tonight. So, it’s just tough.”
He wasn’t alone. Paul Millsap went 3 for 13 and the Nuggets’ bench went a combined 6 for 16. Murray finished with 17 points, while Harris added 15 and Millsap 10.
Lillard finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, and Evan Turner added 14 points, more than he scored over the first six games of the series combined.
Afterward, the Nuggets coach took stock of what his team accomplished a year after missing the postseason by one game. He said he expected a Game 7 loss to provide similar motivation heading into next year.
“The future is so bright,” Malone said. “I love the moment. I love where we’re at, but more importantly, I love where we’re going and who we’re going there with.”
The present, with Portland preparing to play top-seeded Golden State for a spot in the NBA Finals, was a little gloomier.
“Right now, Mother’s Day sucks,” Malone said.