PORTLAND, Ore. — The NBA runs on star-power. We strap in this time of year specifically to see individual brilliance, to marvel at Kevin Durant’s pituitary-fueled unguardability or Damian Lillard’s improvisational brio as they carve up opposing defenses and unconsciously launch 40-foot bombs.
As much as basketball is a team sport — now more than ever in the space-and-pace era — you only go as far as your best players take you. But in those rare and beautiful instances when opposing superstars cancel each other out, the role players have a chance to step into the foreground and, in some cases, swing a playoff series one way or the other.
Yes, this Blazers-Nuggets series has primarily been about the transcendent play of Dame and C.J. on one side and Jokic and Murray on the other, but it’s been the ancillary players who have stepped up and made enormous contributions in the face of unimaginable pressure, and in the process are making the entire difference in this series.
Heroes always emerge from the unlikeliest places, and often under the strangest circumstances. Just ask Rodney Hood, whose year-long journey back to relevance and respectability after a high-profile flop in last year’s Finals culminated in one of the biggest shots of the season for this team in Game 3.
Less than 48 hours later, it was another semi-forgotten man, former Blazers castaway Will Barton, who knocked down a pair of tough three-pointers late in the fourth quarter to help seal this one for Denver.
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) May 6, 2019
Coming off a delirious 22-point performance in Game 3, Barton went just 4-of-14 from the field for 11 points on Sunday, but those two fourth-quarter shots were undeniable difference-makers.
“Will Barton’s threes tonight were really, really impactful,” Mike Malone said after the game. “The confidence that we talked about prior to Game 4 carried over into tonight, and I thought he was really instrumental in this win. In the back of my mind, I was remembering Game 3 and the confidence Will Barton played with. He played here in this city. He knows their players, and I know how much this series means to him personally, as an individual, so I just wanted to throw him out there and stay with him. Will was good for us down the stretch at both ends of the floor. Hopefully, that continues throughout the rest of these games.”
Barton earned some high praise from his teammates as well.
“I think he was really big tonight, just making those shots, just being aggressive, just putting pressure on himself,” Jokic said. “He was a little bit sloppy in the beginning of the playoffs, but the last 2-3 games he’s been really good.”
Despite the loss, the Blazers likewise continued to show why they have one of the deepest, most dangerous benches in the playoffs, with Game 4 featuring a breakout performance of sorts from Seth Curry, who caught fire in the first half and knocked down four out of his first five three-pointers, including this wild buzzer-beater to end the half and give the Blazers a six-point lead.
SETH CURRY IS ON FIRE ? ??
— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) May 6, 2019
Curry would finish with 16 points on the night, but would cool off significantly in the second half. Still, his impact can’t be undersold, especially if he is able to build on that momentum going into Game 5 on Tuesday.
“It’s huge,” Lillard said. “Obviously with the attention that’s gonna come on the ball, if I’m handling or CJ’s handling, it’s huge when he’s making shots, when Rodney’s making shots, you getting guys off the ball scoring, give them something to worry about. I think, going forward, that’s gonna be huge for us, so it was really good to see him get hot out there.”
If you’re either of these teams, that has to be the most frustrating part about trying to game-plan for your opponent: You never know where it’s going to come from. One night it could be Curry and Al-Farouq Aminu, who had 19 points of his own on Sunday. On the other side, it could be Barton or Paul Millsap, who has quietly and consistently put up big numbers for the Nuggets — 21 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4, 17 points and 13 boards in Game 3.
Rarely do you see a collection of superstars on both sides simultaneously reach a new plateau, but that’s exactly what we’ve gotten with the Dame-CJ/Jokic-Murray showdown this series, and it’s been a dizzying experience. But the two teams’ ancillary players have been just as instrumental to their success, and equally as entertaining.
With respect to the Warriors and Rockets — underscored as it has been by Nixonian levels of intrigue — the Blazers and Nuggets have been the most compelling series of the playoffs, even when grading on a curve from the historic Game 3.
While the rest of us spent Saturday curled up in the fetal position, these two teams were getting treatment and desperately trying to wring another ounce or two of strength from their badly-depleted reservoirs that would allow them to suit up and play another grueling basketball game less than 48 hours after the Twilight Zone episode we all narrowly escaped from Friday night.
And they delivered once again. Never mind fatigue. These are two of the most resilient teams you’ll ever see, each consistently finding ways to weather scoring barrages, questionable calls, or defensive miscues, all with equal poise, and it’s taken players all across both rosters to make that happen.