On Saturday night in their home opener, the Denver Nuggets pulled off an amazing magic trick, an astounding illusion.
They made a win ... disappear.
Denver responded from a disjointed first half to go on a 17-0 run in the third quarter to capture a lead against Portland, a team expected to be a playoff contender in the West. After a 30-minute delay due to a power outage in the arena, the Nuggets managed to hang on and withstand the onslaught from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (14 points combined in the fourth) to hold an eight-point lead with 1:26 to go. Their win probability at that point, according to InPredictable, was 99.7 percent.
They lost in overtime.
Denver, in the span of just 90 seconds of game time left accomplished the following:
- Kenneth Faried steals the ball from Al-Farouq Aminu to secure an 8-point lead with 53.5 seconds left. Quite honestly, if the Nuggets just hold possession and run clock here, the Blazers, understanding their predicament, likely concede. This was the game-ender. However, Faried, again, after making a great steal, sees Emmanuel Mudiay streaking up court. Mudiay goes for the home-run play, and Faried throws it. He's got Wilson Chandler, Will Barton and Danilo Gallinari short. If he throws to any one of them, the game is in all likelihood over.
Faried throws the ball ahead to Mudiay on a pattern that Allen Crabbe easily picks off. It leads to a Lillard three.
- Up three with under 20 seconds, the Nuggets only have to worry about giving up three points. They overplay the 3-point line, which allows McCollum to get past Mudiay and to the rim. OK, no problem, as long as Mudiay doesn't get underneath McCollum to foul him for an and-one.
He does. One-point game.
- With 21 seconds to go and a 2-point game, their win probability is still at 98.7 percent. All Denver has to do is inbound the ball, hit free throws, prevent a desperation play (or, preferably, foul up three) and take the opening night win.
Mudiay tries to lob the ball to Nikola Jokic, overthrows him and Jokic drops the ball out of bounds. Typically Mike Miller has inbounded in these situations but for whatever reason, Denver coach Mike Malone goes with the turnover prone Mudiay.
- Despite all of this, Mudiay redeems himself by stealing the ball from Lillard, up two, with just four seconds to go. Their win probability, with four seconds remaining, is 96.7 percent. Hit two free throws, the Blazers inbound, it's done.
Wilson Chandler misses both.
- So this all leads us to the final play of regulation. The Blazers have Mason Plumlee inbound the ball. As Terry Stotts would say later, Plumlee gives them a good passer who's also big enough to throw over a larger defender. The Nuggets have Chandler guarding the inbounds pass, but he's also shading to the baseline to prevent a cutter spitting open for a cutter three.
The set that the Blazers run is one they've run before, and that several teams do as well. Portland clears the paint out completely, stretching the Nuggets to the edges. The guard, this time the incredible Damian Lillard, runs off a high elbow curl screen. The key is that the big guarding the screener has to recognize it and switch to prevent the lob. Watch how the Cavaliers handle it on the final play in this video:
The Nuggets, however, did not have that happen. What does happen is Plumlee makes a pinpoint pass, and Lillard makes an exceptional athletic play for a guy his size. Lillard is so often talked about as a shooter, but it should not be forgotten how coordinated he is and how high he can jump.
Lillard credited his coach after the game.
"It's funny because, at the end of practice sometimes, we go over end-of-game situations," Lillard said. "Our coach is a great offensive-minded coach. He's always drawing up great stuff and in my mind, I'm like "Man, how come we don't run this stuff throughout the game?' There's a lot of good stuff."
Here's how Lillard describes how tough the play is to defend. Video has audio from Lillard:
Of course, that's the offense's perspective. The answer is that in that situation, the big, in this case -- Faried -- has to switch to cover that lob. Here's what Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the game, emphasis mine:
"Obviously they clear out the back side, great play by Terry [Stotts], good execution," Malone said. "Kevin was on the strong side elbow on Meyers Leonard, didn't track the play at all. He was hugged up, they curled it, got to the rim. Good play, good execution, hats off to Portland."
It should be noted that Malone never criticizes guys by name, even on individual play breakdowns, after the game. He doesn't go for the "call out guys in the media" approach, and if we'd asked about Faried's individual defense, which was quite honestly stellar the whole night, he likely would have complimented him. But it's clear the responsibility in the coach's mind falls on Faried there.
Except, here's what Faried told BSN Denver after the game:
Kenneth Faried on what happened defensively on the Damian Lillard lob to tie the game at the end of regulation - pic.twitter.com/535wZpAPiK— Harrison Wind (@NBAWind) October 30, 2016
"I was just guarding the person I was supposed to be guarding," Faried said.
So yeah, some communication breakdowns. The Blazers would go on to win in overtime behind yet another comeback and a game-winner by (you guessed it,) Damian Lillard, taking Faried off the dribble in a switch.
In the end, the Nuggets lost a game they should have won, in their home opener, against a playoff team in their division. It was a devastated locker room afterward, and it was only the second game of the season. It took a cacophony of disasters for Denver to lose that game, and the individual brilliance of Lillard, who continues an MVP start to the year.
It was a fascinating roller coaster of a game, and a great example of the small dramas that play out over the course of such a long season. Amazing to watch, and heartbreaking for a Denver team trying to find itself early on.