Some of what has made Nuggets-Trail Blazers such a fun playoff series is how evenly matched the teams appear to be. Headed into Game 5 with the series tied, neither team had won a game by more than eight points, and the last two games, a split, were decided by a grand total of seven points. One of them went to four goddamn overtimes. The Nuggets and Blazers came into Tuesday night’s game separated by just two total points across the series.
For as fun as that is, it’s worth reminding yourself that a perfectly even series against the third-seed Blazers, sans Jusuf Nurkic, should represent a disappointing turn of events for the Denver Nuggets, who for long stretches of the regular season had the best record in the Western Conference. In Game 5, for the first time in this series, a significant gap opened up between the two teams, and Denver played like the healthier, deeper team, and the higher seed, cruising to a dominant 124–98 win at home to put the Blazers on the brink of elimination. The Nuggets led wire to wire, and by as many as 31 points.
Nikola Jokic was tremendous, because of course he was. He’s had a phenomenal run through these playoffs, and Tuesday night the only thing that kept him from a 20-point, 20-rebound double-double was a sixth foul, picked up with about four minutes left in the game and his Nuggets up 22 points. Jokic finished with 25 points on 18 shots, plus 19 rebounds and six assists. For what it’s worth, only 15 other players in NBA history have ever put up that many points, rebounds, and assists in a playoff game, and every single one of them either already is or will be in the Hall of Fame.
Jokic had more help than usual in Game 5. Paul Millsap had a tidy 24 points and eight rebounds, on efficient shooting, and the wing quartet of Gary Harris, Will Barton, Malik Beasley, and Torrey Craig combined for 44 points and exactly one turnover. Jamal Murray was the human embodiment of the emoji with steam shooting out of its nose, darting and dancing his way through Portland’s defense, trying out tricky sequences of moves, and doing a fair share of gloating about it. Murray finished with 18 points and nine assists, and spent the competitive portion of the game in a kind of hyper-aggressive fugue state that was genuinely thrilling to watch.
Murray’s show and Denver’s cakewalk seemed to loosen up the other Nuggets, such that by the time this game got deep into garbage time, some deeply stupid stuff was going down:
Given the way this series has gone, and given how amped and thunderous Portland’s home crowd can be, there’s every reason to expect the Trail Blazers to respond to this thrashing with one of their own in Game 6. Denver benefited from off shooting nights almost across the board from Portland’s most important offensive players—only a crazy person would bet against Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum going full psycho in an elimination game, with a shot at the conference finals so tantalizingly close. We will forgive this blowout result if this series gets back to its nip-and-tuck ways and goes the full seven games.