Nikola Jokic capped off a remarkable season Sunday night. The rest of his teammates didn’t follow suit.
Jokic started the regular-season finale against Portland but didn’t see the floor in the second half. With the playoffs on deck, Jokic’s availability was far more important than a game the Nuggets didn’t need to win.
Conversely, to avoid the play-in tournament, Portland did. As a result, the Blazers pounded the Nuggets 132-116 on Sunday, locking in a top-6 playoff spot. The Nuggets finished the regular season at 47-25.
As the game ended Sunday night, the Nuggets were awaiting the results of several other games to determine their first-round matchup. There was a high likelihood, coincidentally, that the Blazers would be Denver’s first-round opponent.
Intent on playing all 72 games, Jokic did just that. He scored 21 points in the final game of the 2020-’21 campaign, which will likely end with a regular season MVP award. But with the playoffs set to begin next weekend, a regular-season honor is likely the last thing on his mind.
Perhaps out of precaution, Michael Porter Jr. didn’t play the second half, either. If the Nuggets are to be a threat in the postseason, they’ll need him to be Jokic’s scoring sidekick.
In a game without much consequence for Denver, Portland’s stars took over. C.J. McCollum had a team-high 24 points, Damian Lillard finished with 22 and Jusuf Nurkic added 20.
The Nuggets yanked most of their starters at halftime, opting for Monte Morris, Markus Howard, JaMychal Green, Paul Millsap and Austin Rivers to open the third quarter. Rivers was the lone holdover.
It didn’t matter who was in, the Blazers kept chucking from outside. Lillard buried four 3-pointers, pacing the Blazers with 15 points in the quarter. Denver’s best answer was Howard, who nearly matched Lillard’s production with 13 points and three 3-pointers. One of them even came from Lillard range.
But the Blazers shot 60% and continued pounding the glass. They carried a 107-84 lead into the fourth.
Howard finished the game with a career-high 23 points, including four 3-pointers.
Despite the madness of the regular season finale, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he and his staff hadn’t spent any time thinking about seeding implications for the first round.
“Not at all,” Malone said before the game. “Once we got homecourt advantage after the game in Charlotte, we met in my room for a while going into our last three games and just gave ourselves a plan to work with, how we wanted to approach each of those games. Obviously in the Minnesota game, we kept a few guys out. In the Detroit game, we rested a few other players. Tonight’s no different.
“We’re not looking to avoid anybody, or, we want this matchup,” Malone added. “You start doing all that stuff … because so many other things have to go into place.”
To make this point, the Nuggets went with their usual starters while other teams around the NBA rested their stars.
“When we get on that plane tonight, we’ll know who we’ll play in the first round,” he said. “I haven’t spent five minutes since we got into town here worrying about who we’re playing after tonight. That’s not part of our preparation.”
Neither was showing their hand. When the night started, a matchup against the Blazers was a distinct possibility. The last thing Malone was worried about was giving Portland any last-minute tips on what the Nuggets run.
“I don’t think there are any secrets,” he said. “They know us inside and out, we know them inside and out.”
A sluggish start bled into an ugly half, and the Nuggets headed into halftime down 72-55. Only Jokic and Porter played with any requisite urgency. The former diced Portland’s frontcourt for 21 points on 9-for-17 from the field, while Porter rained in three first-half 3-pointers. The rest of the team looked lethargic.
As a team, the Nuggets were just 6-of-20 from 3-point range. The Blazers established an early double-digit lead and never stopped hoisting from outside. McCollum knocked down four of Portland’s 10 first-half 3s. Nurkic led the Blazers with 18 first-half points and was one of three players to reach double-digits.
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