Nuggets Austin Rivers steals show in 4th quarter carries Denver to
Nuggets May Not Need Jamal Murray to Make Noise in the Playoffs Thu, 27 May 2021 22:00:00 -0700-With the score tied at 91, it was Austin Rivers, not Damian Lillard, who owned crunch time, hitting four 3-pointers in the final six minutes to lift the Denver Nuggets …
A little more than a month ago, Austin Rivers was at home, out of the NBA and waiting on his phone to ring for another chance.
On Thursday night, Rivers was at the forefront of a pivotal NBA playoff game, scoring 16 of his 21 points in a supercharged fourth quarter to help power the Denver Nuggets to a 120-115 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3.
The win gave the Nuggets a 2-1 series lead.
“I sat there for like a month and a half, waiting on the phone to ring. I just put my faith in God, having conversations with myself, talking to God like, 'What's the plan? What's going to happen?'” Rivers said. “All the feedback I kept getting is, a lot of teams liked me but they didn't know what type of character I was and how I'd be in their locker room. My basketball ability was never questioned; it was who I was as a person. Which is actually even worse.
“Truthfully, it broke my heart. Because I know who I am, and I've always had good relationships with people, but you can have one instance with mistakes and be labeled something.”
Rivers spent time waiting for that call after he was traded at the deadline from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a three-team deal and then waived. He signed a 10-day deal with Denver on April 20, a week after star point guard Jamal Murray tore an ACL and was set to miss the remainder of the season. Rivers signed for the rest of the season on April 30.
“Couldn't be happier for the kid,” coach Michael Malone said. “I just told our team, think about this — guy was sitting at home for 2½ months waiting for his phone to ring. And it wasn't ringing. That to me is crazy to even think about. Austin Rivers is a good player. He's played in 45 playoff games prior to this season, and it just worked out for him and us that he's here.”
The son of Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers, Austin has had a high-profile basketball career, starting with being a highly sought-after recruit, eventually signing with Duke. He was drafted 10th overall in 2012 by the New Orleans Pelicans but eventually joined the LA Clippers to play for his father in 2015. In 2018, he was traded to the Wizards, then dealt to the Suns and waived, before signing with the Houston Rockets. He signed with the Knicks before this season, appearing in 21 games before he was traded.
“This game can bring you to the lowest feeling in the world. I swear, some nights you can feel so low,” Rivers said. “And then this game can make you feel so good about yourself, too. It's a beautiful game.”
Rivers didn't want to elaborate on what kept him out of the league, but he did hint at a specific incident earlier in his career that has followed him around. The time away from the game gave him plenty of opportunity to reflect on himself, and how he could put it behind him.
“It was a humbling experience,” he said. “But it's made me a better player. It's made me a better person.”
In Game 3, with 5 minutes, 55 seconds to go, the score was 91-91, setting up a prime opportunity for a heavy dose of Dame Time from Lillard, but it was Rivers who flipped the script, hitting four 3s in the final six minutes.
“Funny thing is, he scored 16 points in that fourth quarter, shooting into a really big basket. Prior to that, I felt he was turning down open shots,” Malone said. “He wasn't shooting the ball. I said to him three or four times, 'Austin, let it go, let it fly, shoot the ball when you're open.' And eventually in that fourth quarter, he did.”
The patchwork nature of the Nuggets' backcourt has been a shining example of the culture of resiliency and toughness Malone has installed in his group. It's not only Rivers, but critical minutes from 30-year-old rookie Facundo Campazzo, two-way player Shaquille Harrison and undrafted rookie two-way player Markus Howard.
“We're a resilient group, we're a tough group and we're like the Statue of Liberty, man — we take everybody,” Malone said. “You come here, if you can bring something to the table to help us win a game, we're gonna throw you out there.”
Since the injury to Murray, the Nuggets have searched for complementary scoring to likely MVP Nikola Jokic, leaning on a collection of players on any given night. But with the Blazers scheming the Nuggets with a plan to not double-team Jokic, it has put the focus on Denver's role players to step up.
Jokic has delivered scoring in largely single coverage throughout the series, dropping another 36 points on 12-of-24 shooting, but the additional scoring from unexpected places has been the difference the past two games.
The Nuggets reclaimed home-court advantage with their win in Portland, establishing momentum in the series as the early adjustments have countered the Blazers' defensive game plan. In part, it has been a simple answer: Like Rivers did on Thursday, trust players to make plays and make shots.
“Fighting is something we develop as a Nuggets organization,” Jokic said. “We're gonna get on your nerves.”
Austin Rivers steals show in 4th quarter, carries Denver Nuggets to … Thu, 27 May 2021 22:00:00 -0700-Porter combined for 43 points in the first two games, hitting a trio of threes as he finished with a plus-17 in a Game 2 win. Jokic continues to be masterful. Denver's …
Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury likely served as the end of the Nuggets’ Finals hopes ahead of the 2021 playoffs. But his absence from the lineup didn’t exactly decimate Denver’s attack through its first three playoff games.
The Nuggets closed the regular season 13–5 without Murray, sporting the NBA’s No. 8 offensive rating following his mid-April exit from the lineup. Nikola Jokic cruised to the top of the MVP ballots across the league, while Michael Porter Jr. continued his ascent as a star in the making. A similar pattern has emerged in round one. Porter combined for 43 points in the first two games, hitting a trio of threes as he finished with a plus-17 in a Game 2 win. Jokic continues to be masterful. Denver’s big man made 15 of 20 shots en route to a 38-point performance in Game 2, adding 36 points in Thursday’s 120-115 road win. Even if the Blazers’ defense is never going to be confused with the 2004 Pistons', Denver’s attack still looks as healthy as ever.
Jokic’s brilliance early in this series is a decidedly unsurprising event. He entered Thursday night averaging 25.4 points on 52/42/84 shooting splits in 35 career playoff games, with five postseason triple-doubles under his belt. Jokic is perhaps the game’s most steady force, brilliantly dictating each possession with a metronome-like consistency. A first-round exit before Jokic is named MVP is looking increasingly unlikely after Game 3.
Jokic’s dominance in the first round isn’t exactly surprising. The same can’t be said for the performance of his supporting cast. Denver is cobbling together quality minutes from an unexpected backcourt duo, with Austin Rivers and 30-year-old rookie Facu Campazzo putting up a valiant battle against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Rivers canned five threes in a 21-point performance on Thursday. Campazzo fell two rebounds and two assists short of a triple-double. Both guards add a further dose of playmaking and pace to Denver’s attack, and considering Portland’s diminutive backcourt, they should continue to face little resistance as the defense collapses around Jokic.
Last year’s run to the Western Conference finals taught us a great deal about Murray in particular. Denver’s point guard was a dominant scorer in the first two rounds of the 2020 playoffs, posting a quartet of 40-point performances. The 2020 playoffs served as validation of Murray as an elite sidekick. Perhaps these playoffs will entrench Porter as the finishing piece in a true Big 3.
Portland’s defense manically worked to chase Porter off the line on Thursday night, (rightfully) scared of his smooth stroke as Denver pinged the ball around the perimeter. The Porter of last season would chuck away despite the defensive attention, but Game 3 featured a mature, controlled version of the Missouri product. Porter posted a team-best plus-14 in 33 minutes, hitting 3-of-5 triples as he finished with 15 points. Denver racked up the hockey assists with 20 threes on 38 attempts. Porter’s scoring prowess set the table for a number of the Nuggets’ open looks.
As we continue to learn about the talent on hand in Denver, is there much we can really say about Portland at this point? Perhaps we’re wasting our breath.
The Blazers have been a playoff stalwart over the last decade, logging eight straight playoff appearances. Though unlike Denver, the idea of a run to the Finals either this year or in subsequent seasons seems increasingly far fetched. This is still a disastrous defensive outfit, and there isn’t the requisite depth to keep up with the best squads in the West. Lillard remains one of the great scorers of his era and one of the greatest shooters ever. But his fireworks can only take a team so far. It’s not necessarily a criticism of Lillard to recognize his team is a paper tiger. Another first-round exit would only confirm the point.
This series is anything but over as the Nuggets hold a 2–1 lead. Lillard is due for at least one late-game eruption, and it’s hard to see Denver shooting the lights out on the road like it did on Thursday. But look through a larger lens, and it's hard not to see this series as a matchup of franchises moving in opposite directions.
The Blazers’ title window is closed—if it ever was open—and it’s unlikely they’ll be favored in any series for the rest of Lillard’s career. As for the Nuggets, their future is arguably as bright as any team in the Western Conference. Murray’s injury derailed this year’s Finals hopes. But the playoff reps for Jokic and Porter should pay dividends in 2021 and beyond.
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– May 28, 2021
Blazers, nuggets vs trail blazers