Jokic scores 38, Nuggets beat Blazers 128-109 to even series

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter (11) in the first quarter of Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Monday, May 24, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets played with an unspoken sense of urgency.

“Because if you’re going to talk about it, you’re not going to do it,” the big man reasoned.

So no talk, just a much more physical mentality.

Jokic scored 38 points to overcome a 3-point shooting barrage from Damian Lillard and the Nuggets evened the first-round series by beating the Portland Trail Blazers 128-109 on Monday night in a chippy Game 2.

“They picked up the aggressiveness and we did it, too,” Jokic said. “We met their aggressiveness, maybe even a little bit higher.”

Jokic also had eight rebounds and five assists, which was four more than he dished out in Game 1 when the Blazers made sure the big man didn’t beat him with his pinpoint passing.

The third-seeded Nuggets had few answers for Lillard early on as the dynamic playmaker scored 32 of his 42 points in the first half. His eight 3-pointers before intermission tied an NBA playoff record for most in a half. Lillard finished 9 of 16 from 3-point range.

A change of plans at halftime helped slow down Lillard. Denver put the 6-foot-9 Aaron Gordon on the 6-2 guard.

“I looked at the coaching staff and said, ‘I got him,’” said Gordon, who was acquired from Orlando in late March. “It could be a point guard or it could be a center — I’m there for it all.”

Lillard’s already thinking ahead to Game 3 in Portland on Thursday and what he will do to counteract Gordon’s defensive tenacity.

“Just moving around more off the ball, getting some more off-ball sets,” Lillard said. “Things like that, you can typically get a little bit of space.”

It was a physical affair, with four technical fouls being issued (three on Denver, including one on Jokic) and two flagrant-1 calls (CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony).

“It was chippy and that’s the way it should be,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I loved it. That’s my kind of game right there.”

Up by 20 points midway through the fourth quarter, the Nuggets withstood a mini-rally from Portland before Facundo Campazzo sealed the win with a 3-pointer. Monte Morris also had a big block on Lillard.

Michael Porter Jr. found his rhythm and finished with 18 points. He was 3-of-6 from 3-point range after going 1-of-10 from long distance in Game 1.

The usually sure-handed Blazers committed 21 turnovers. They also were outscored 54-32 in the paint, 16-4 in fast-break points and 21-4 in second-chance points.

“They outplayed us top to bottom — other than Dame’s (42),” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We have to be more aggressive, there’s no question.”

While Lillard lit it up — and McCollum added 21 — the Nuggets kept Anthony (five points) and Anfernee Simons (three) in check. They hurt the Nuggets coming off the bench in the series opener with a combined 32 points.

The game turned physical early in the first, with Jusuf Nurkic and Jokic getting tangled up and Jokic falling to the floor. At the next timeout, the teams started jawing near midcourt, leading to technical on Porter and Portland assistant coach Nate Tibbetts.

The tempers escalated as Anthony pushed Jokic down and drew a flagrant-1 foul. Just when things began to settle down, Morris picked up a technical right after the halftime horn. Lillard shot the free throw to start the second half.

“They just brought energy to the game with that physicality and the deflections and things like that, which once again was expected,” Lillard said. “Obviously, we didn’t allow that to happen on purpose. But that’s what happens.”

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Nurkic fouled out on a charge with 9:58 remaining. The Blazers unsuccessfully challenged the play. … Lillard’s eight 3s matched the playoff mark for a half held by Toronto’s Vince Carter, who hit that many in the first half against Philadelphia on May 11, 2001. … Lillard had 10 assists.

Nuggets: G/F Will Barton (right hamstring) missed his 15th consecutive game. … G Jamal Murray once again played the role of enthusiastic cheerleader on the bench as he recovers from a torn ACL.

NO COMPARISON

The Blazers took a 1-0 series lead last season on the eventual NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers, before losing in five games.

“We really don’t make any comparisons to last year,” Stotts said. “Denver’s a different team than the Lakers.”

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