A lot was made after the epic, four-overtime Game 3 battle between the Nuggets and Blazers about how the 68-minute marathon would impact Denver during the rest of the series. The experts wondered how Michael Malone’s team would bounce back from putting so much into that game, only to come up short in the end.
Much to the surprise of many, the Nuggets showed great resiliency, bouncing back less than 48 hours later to win Game 4 on Portland’s home court. They followed up that impressive victory by blowing out the Blazers in Game 5.
A better question after the 4OT classic might have been how the game would affect the Blazers. Coming back multiple times, having to withstand four last possessions where the Nuggets had a chance to close out the game, had to be exhilarating; but it also must’ve be draining.
Two games later, a case can be made that the win took a lot out of Portland. The minutes played by their starters – including 60 by C.J. McCollum, 58 for Damian Lillard and 56 for Enes Kanter – appears to have tired out the Blazers.
With that being the case, head coach Terry Stotts may have taken an interesting approach to Game 5. At least that’s what former Nuggets guard Earl Boykins believes.
“Portland seemed as if they were content with losing Game 5, believing they could come in here and win a Game 7,” Boykins said during an interview on “Schlereth and Evans” this morning. “(They) came out with the attitude of, ‘Let’s see how the first quarter goes. If it doesn’t go our way and we’re not playing well, we’ll just take our foot off the gas, rest up and get ready for Game 6.'”
As crazy as that sounds, he may have a point. The way Portland’s head coach allotted playing time on Tuesday night certainly suggested that he was living to fight another day.
The Blazers trailed by six after the first quarter, were down 18 at halftime and fell behind by 28 after three periods. As a result, Portland’s starters spent a lot of time on the bench. Lillard played a team-high 32 minutes, McCollum played only 29 and Kanter was limited to 26; three reserves played more than 20 minutes, while none of Portland’s starting five stepped foot on the court during the fourth quarter.
Contrast that with the Nuggets’ approach. Once the big lead was trimmed to 19 early in the fourth quarter, Malone was forced to put his starting lineup back into the game. By night’s end, Gary Harris had logged 37 minutes, while Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Jamal Murray all were on the floor for 34. Only Will Barton saw 20-plus minutes off the bench.
But it wasn’t just playing time that was part of Stotts’ strategy; he was also looking to beat up the Nuggets a bit. That’s why Meyers Leonard played 16 minutes, including the entire final frame.
During that time, the seven-footer got physical with Denver. He was borderline dirty.
On the offensive end, Leonard set multiple picks that included an extra hip check. On two occasions, he knocked Murray to the hardwood. After another hard screen, he had Malik Beasley had words while lined up for a Portland free throw.
On the other side of the court, Leonard was equally physical. He drew a flagrant foul after making contact with Jokic while the Nuggets star was jumping for a layup; it was such a cheap shot that Jokic had to be restrained from coming to blows with the Blazers power forward.
After giving back home-court advantage with a Game 4 loss, Stotts knew that his team had to win at home in Game 6 and steal another victory in Denver. According to Boykins, Portland’s head coach calculated that getting his team some rest, beating up the Nuggets a bit and taking his chances in a decisive Game 7 was his best bet.
Based on how things shaped up on Tuesday night at Pepsi Center, the former Nuggets guard might have a point. Now, it’ll be interesting to see if Stotts’ master plan works.
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