Portland head coach Terry Stotts said he could feel Damian Lillard’s will to win as the All-Star guard poured in 45 points to lead the Trail Blazers to victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Lillard was not off to a great shooting start inside the NBA bubble. But if he was in a slump, it is definitely over now.
The five-time All-Star tied his own franchise record with 11 three-pointers as the Trail Blazers moved closer to the No 8 spot in the Western Conference by beating the Nuggets 125-115 on Thursday. Lillard was 11-for-18 from three-point range and had 12 assists.
“Obviously, he had an outstanding game scoring the ball, assists… but more than anything else, his leadership tonight, his will to win was palpable,” Stotts said of Lillard. “You could just feel it, how important this was to him.”
The Blazers (32-38) closed to within a half-game of Memphis in the race for eighth in the West, where a play-in series for the last playoff berth – and the right to face the Los Angeles Lakers in the opening round of the playoffs – now seems almost certain.
“We haven’t been playing games, a lot of live action, and it just takes time,” said Lillard, who was 10-for-30 from three-point range in Portland’s opening three seeding games. “But it felt good. I knew eventually it would click.”
Lillard had seven points in a 24-second span of the third quarter – a three-pointer while getting fouled, the subsequent free throw, then another trey on Portland’s next possession.
Lillard is the second player to have multiple games with at least 10 three-pointers this season, Houston’s James Harden being the other. ‘Dame’ had 11 triples against Golden State on January 20, the night he scored an NBA season-high 61 points.
Gary Trent Jr had 27 points off the bench and Jusuf Nurkic scored 22 for Portland.
Michael Porter Jr scored 27 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for Denver (45-24), who remained in the West’s No 3 spot. Porter had 10 first-quarter points, giving him three consecutive games of at least that many in the opening period in the bubble – all in a span of four days. He did not have more than seven points in any of his other 38 first-quarter appearances this season.
The Nuggets played most of the fourth quarter with reserves on the floor, limiting Nikola Jokic to 24 minutes.
“I thought our second-half effort was tremendous,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I thought our guys competed. [Portland were] playing for their playoff lives with all their starters in [while] we have got guys who haven’t played a lot of minutes in the NBA. We were giving them all they can handle.”