PORTLAND, Ore. — When the confetti was finally released from the rafters and the final buzzer sounded on Game 3, the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets had played 68 minutes of basketball — and they might have played 68 more had a fatigued Nikola Jokic not missed a free throw with 5.6 seconds left.
The Blazers had outlasted the Nuggets 140-137 in a three-and-a-half hour, four-overtime marathon, a grueling, exhausting, test of will. You could’ve watched “Avengers: Endgame,” including the credits, and had time to spare. The landing gear would’ve been out on your flight from Portland to Denver. CJ McCollum ran 4.38 miles in the game. Jokic played the most minutes in a playoff game in the shot clock era. The only other time four overtimes were played in a playoff game, Red Auerbach was coaching — and was four years away from winning his first championship.
It was a game that seemed to be over 20 different times, with each team taking its turn as the winner.
“I have no idea what happened in the first half or the second half,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, “or the first three overtimes.”
So, what exactly did happen?
7:46 p.m. PT/10:46 p.m. ET
That’s when the game started. Remember that? The Blazers won the tip. Little did they know, four more of them at midcourt were coming. Al-Farouq Aminu scored the first points of the game on a free throw. The first quarter score was 23-17, with the Blazers surging with a 7-0 run over the final three minutes. It felt like a big moment.
8:44 p.m. PT/11:44 p.m. ET
Halftime: The Blazers led 48-47. Pretty close game despite Portland leading by as many as 10. Jamal Murray (16 points) and Damian Lillard (10 points) were the only players in double figures as both teams were under 40 percent shooting from the field.
Jamal Murray uses slick handles to create an open shot and knocks down the 3-pointer.
9:12 p.m. PT/12:12 a.m. ET
Jokic was playing somewhat passively, and Nuggets coach Mike Malone challenged him in a timeout.
“I said, ‘Listen, we’ve gotta get this big fella going, we’ve gotta start getting him the ball,'” Malone said. “I don’t care if they were double-teaming him or not, let’s keep getting him the ball, let him make plays, let him be aggressive and score, and he was able to do so.”
Midway through the third, Jokic had only six points. He scored 17 in the quarter and 27 of his 33 after halftime, finishing with a monster triple-double that included 18 rebounds and 14 assists.
Jokic was all that was keeping the Nuggets in it, too. The Blazers were starting to separate, and after playing facilitator and decoy for much of the first three quarters, Lillard came alive. He slithered off a high screen and popped a 30-footer from straightaway and the Blazers led by eight with 2:44 left in the third. He made two free throws a possession later and it was a 77-67 Portland lead with 2:13 left in the third quarter. Jokic answered back with seven in the final 90 seconds of the third to cut it to five heading to the fourth.
9:56 p.m. PT/12:56 a.m. ET
Murray, who was playing with an injured thigh and shoulder, hit a vicious step-back 3 to put the Nuggets up five with 1:56 to go. Maurice Harkless answered it with a 3 a few seconds later, then had an and-1 chance that would’ve put the Blazers up with 1:04 left. He missed the free throw, but the Nuggets turned it over and Lillard hit what seemed to be a trademark Dame Time kind of shot — a running floater with 31.6 seconds left to put the Blazers up two. Before the play, it looked as if Stotts wanted a timeout, but Lillard waved it off and wanted the ball inbounded. The Nuggets had been bracketing and trapping him the entire game, and he didn’t want to let them scheme the ball out of his hands again.
The Nuggets called timeout and Malone drew up a beauty. Jokic hit a weaving Will Barton on a back-cut for a layup and it was tied again with 28.6 seconds left. The Nuggets got it out of Lillard’s hands this time, with Aminu missing an open 3 with 6.7 seconds left. The Nuggets grabbed the rebound but took a dribble before the timeout meaning they couldn’t advance the ball. They didn’t even get a shot off. End of regulation.
10:20 p.m. PT/1:20 a.m. ET
CJ McCollum pulls up from the wing and hits the 3-pointer in overtime.
McCollum was cooking in overtime, throwing haymakers. Everything was running through him.
“I always enjoy when CJ gets rolling because it’s not just the fact he’s doing it for our team, it’s the way it looks,” Lillard said. “Guys like him and Kyrie Irving, they have the game that just look good, just smooth. Crossovers, crafty, tough shots, so to just watch it was great as a teammate and as a friend. Just the time that it came, It was just big shot after big shot after big shot after big shot and for me my job is to allow that. When he’s rolling, let him keep rolling.”
But as they did all night, the Nuggets responded. Paul Millsap took advantage of Rodney Hood in the paint and put Denver up two with 47.1 seconds left. Lillard missed a step-back, but stole it back from Torrey Craig with 16 seconds left. Lillard airballed a layup — really — but the Blazers kept it alive, and after some madness and chaos, McCollum hit a composed runner with 8.7 seconds left. The Nuggets got the final look, a 27-foot 3 from Jokic that hit back iron. Double overtime.
10:32 p.m. PT/1:32 a.m. ET
Lillard made a 28-foot 3 to put the Blazers up five with 2:50 left in the second overtime, and all that was missing was some wrist tapping. It felt as if it were that time. Barton, though, had other ideas. He answered with a 3, then Millsap finished a short runner to tie the score again. McCollum hit a pull-up jumper, and Gary Harris finished a reverse layup. There was a jump ball between Lillard and Murray with 4.1 seconds left, and the toss by the referee was comically bad, tilted completely toward Lillard. The Blazers won the tip and called timeout.
The last shot was almost from the same spot Lillard ended the series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, 30 feet away from the right wing, near the Moda Center logo. Craig contested it and Lillard missed it to the left. Neither team scored in the last minute of the second overtime.
Damian Lillard attempts to win the game with a 3-pointer, but is off the mark and the Blazers and Nuggets head to a third overtime.
10:36 p.m. PT/1:36 a.m. ET
McCollum reheated in the third overtime. A 19-foot pull-up, a 22-foot step-back, a 26-foot ruthless 3-pointer. The Nuggets answered. Murray hit two free throws with 1:25 left to put Denver up two, then Millsap hit a gorgeous turnaround jumper that had the look of a shot that would settle things. The Nuggets led 129-125 with 32.2 seconds left, and the Blazers called timeout.
Lillard darted for a layup in less than five seconds, and with only a three-second difference between the shot and game clock, the Blazers tried to force a steal. McCollum pressured Murray, and pinned him up against the sideline, McCollum poked the ball away. In real time, it appeared the ball was obviously off McCollum, but fingers twirled in the air asking for a review, and with the footage grainy as it rolled through frame by frame, it was clearly off Murray’s fingertips.
After the ensuring inbounds play, Lillard went straight back to the rim with 8.4 seconds left and tied it. The Nuggets got another last crack, and after drawing a switch with Enes Kanter on him, Murray missed a 31-footer that banked off the backboard and rim.
Game 3 was now officially tied as the longest playoff game ever.
10:53 p.m. PT/1:53 a.m. ET
When the fourth overtime started, Jokic had already logged 60 minutes, including 39 consecutive without a break. It was so many that Malone apologized to Jokic after the game in the locker room.
“To be honest in that moment, in that time you don’t even think about how much minutes you are playing,” Jokic said. “You’re just trying to win a game. After the game of course, I mean I think it’s a lot, but I’m not going to go out in the fourth overtime.”
Both teams were, understandably, gassed. Barton had a little juice and scored the first points of the fourth overtime. Kanter answered after collecting an airballed Aminu jumper. Barton hit a pull-up jumper with 2:49 left, and after a minute passed, the game finally had its answer.
Rodney Hood hadn’t played since the last minute of the first overtime but checked in for Harkless with 1:59 left. The Blazers have been trying to exploit mismatches, particularly with Murray as the defender, during the series so they went straight to Hood on the block. He backed down Murray and hit a turnaround jumper. Lillard said to run that back.
“I think it was at one point we were down two and coach called a play for him and he scored it,” Lillard said. “And then the next time I was like same play, and he looked at me like what we doing, and I was like, same thing. Let’s keep it rolling and he hit another one.”
Hood isolated on Murray and hit a baseline step-back. The Nuggets were up 136-135, though, with 27.6 seconds left. McCollum missed a jumper coming out of a Portland timeout, but he followed his shot and tracked a rebound. He spotted Hood open on the wing.
After a CJ McCollum miss, Rodney Hood drains a 3-pointer from the wing to give the Blazers the lead late in 4OT.
“I see him out of the corner of my eyes when I rose, and I was like OK, if I do miss this, it’s probably going to come back to me,” McCollum said. “So I followed, and I jumped and right when I jumped I looked and I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ … I got excited so I tried to throw it as fast as possible. And when he pump-faked it, I was like, ‘Uh-oh’ … and he sidestepped and cashed out. I was like big, big shot Rodney. We needed that. Because I don’t know what was going to happen down the stretch in a fifth or sixth overtime.”
Coaches often don’t like to sub in overtime situations, preferring to stick with the players in the flow of the game because they’re worried guys on the bench might be too stiff or cold to be ready. It looked as if Stotts had bucked that logic and found some fresh legs, and a matchup issue for Denver. Not quite.
“I’d like to take credit for that,” Stotts said, “but Moe was cramping up a little bit. That was the reason for the substitution.”
For Hood, it was a triumphant moment of redemption after his last postseason was one of disappointment and difficulty. Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers midseason from the Utah Jazz and seen as a key part to help LeBron James, Hood fell out of favor and was effectively benched in the playoffs.
“I stayed patient, didn’t get down on myself even when a lot of people did,” Hood said with the emotion obvious on his face. “I just didn’t give up, I didn’t give up on myself and I just kept playing, kept working. And I had no idea that I would end up here in Portland in this type of situation. But to be here, to have my family in the crowd when I saw a lot of sad faces last year, last go-around … to be here is very emotional for me, to be quite frank. A lot more basketball to go through, but it feels good right now.
Of course, Game 3 wasn’t quite over with, though. Hood’s shot put Portland up two, and Denver had another shot. Jokic was fouled, and with the Moda Center crowd quaking, he missed the first free throw. He made the second, but Seth Curry subsequently made both of his, and a desperation toss was picked off by McCollum and finally, Game 3 ended at 11:13 p.m. local time, 2:13 a.m. on the East Coast.
Lillard pulled in Aminu and Harkless, two of his closest teammates and players he always feels are undervalued, and hugged them. He then gathered the entire team at midcourt. Fans poured into the concourses, chanting and high-fiving one another. Game 4 was set to tip off in a little more than 36 hours and both teams were already in recovery mode. The Blazers had already canceled Saturday’s practice.
For both teams, losing was going to be mentally anguishing, a hurdle in and of itself to know that much work went in to come out empty-handed. Lillard said he had thought about the consequences of losing and what kind of effect that could carry.
“I just remember the third overtime, we was down four with 30 seconds left, and I was just like I know it’s not a lot of time, probably going to end up having to foul,” he said. “Like something is going to have to work out because I started thinking about how I would feel when I got home tonight. And I was just like, ‘We just can’t have this right now.’ I’m sure everyone was thinking that same way about how they would feel if they went home tonight and know that we went home and left this game out there and didn’t take care of business, so we got it done.”
It’s only one game. It’s now 2-1 in favor of the Blazers, with a critical Game 4 ahead soon.
“Well, it’s one and a half, since we played a game and a half,” Stotts said. “So let’s get [credit for] 1.5. But we still have to get to four.”