Shooting woes doom Denver Nuggets in loss at Portland Trail Blazers

Shooting woes doom Denver Nuggets in loss at Portland Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. — Coach Michael Malone cut the Nuggets’ shootaround at the Moda Center short Monday morning.

The reason? The temperature in the arena was uncharacteristically cold, and the coach quipped that his players needed to return to their hotel to thaw out.

Turns out those conditions foreshadowed Denver’s shooting performance in Portland that evening, as the Nuggets finished with their lowest scoring output of the season in a lopsided 99-82 loss against their Northwest Division foe.

“We were in a very good offensive rhythm coming in here,” Malone said. “And they took us out of our rhythm right away.”

The Nuggets (8-6) also set a season low for shooting percentage (35.7), including a 5-of-22 mark in the decisive third quarter in which Portland outscored Denver 30-17 to take a comfortable lead for good. They were outrebounded 43-35 and turned the ball over 20 times.

Denver’s poor offensive performance was the outlier in a stretch of eight 100-point performances in nine games, with the Nuggets posting a 7-2 record during that stretch while looking like the free-flowing unit from last season. Monday’s point total falls far below the 93 Denver scored at the Charlotte Hornets on Oct. 25.

“It’s hard sometimes,” said guard Will Barton, who scored 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting in his second consecutive start in place of an injured Gary Harris. “It was just one of those nights.”

Yet the night was also the latest impressive effort for Portland’s vastly improved defense, which moved up to third in the NBA with a 99.2 rating. Malone said he notices better communication and better commitment from the Trail Blazers (7-6), with familiar face Jusuf Nurkic anchoring the attack inside. Nurkic, the formerly disgruntled Nugget who was dealt to Portland at last February’s trade deadline, helped limit Denver star Nikola Jokic to six points on 2-of-9 shooting while totaling 17 points and five rebounds.

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Malone, meanwhile, was largely pleased with the Nuggets’ defense on Portland’s starting unit. The dynamite backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum scored 10 points apiece during the Trail Blazers third-quarter charge, but were also both held below their scoring average while combining to shoot 11-of-25 from the field.

The difference, Malone said, was a Portland bench that outscored Denver’s reserves 42-14 to help the Trail Blazers shoot a season-high 52.1 percent from the floor. Evan Turner scored 10 of his 14 points in the first half on 7-of-11 shooting and added five assists. Noah Vonleh added eight points and 10 rebounds, while Shabazz Napier totaled eight points, three assists and two steals.

Of course, Barton is typically a crucial piece of Denver’s bench. And Harris’ absence while nursing a sore right shoulder is felt on both ends, as he is shooting 44.1 percent from 3-point range and is the Nuggets’ top perimeter defender.

“Still no excuse,” Malone said. “The guys that come in have to be ready to give us something. Tonight, we just didn’t have it.”

Following a 5-1 homestand that Malone described as “unbelievable,” the Nuggets’ early-season road woes continued Monday. Denver dropped to 2-4 away from the Pepsi Center and has not won at Portland since 2013.

The Nuggets return to their comfortable home conditions Friday for a home game against the New Orleans Pelicans. But then they play 14 of their next 20 games on the road.

No word on what the shootaround conditions will be like in any of those future locations. But if they’re chilly, the Nuggets hope they don’t foreshadow another poor offensive performance.

“They were just going off,” Jokic said of the Trail Blazers. “We couldn’t score.”

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