Nuggets to Blazers: We are still better

At the 7:19 mark of the fourth quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge found a red-hot Rudy Fernandez open beyond the arc. He made the extra pass, Fernandez drained the three, the Blazers led 81-74, the Rose Garden was rocking, George Karl called time-out, and the fans just knew the Blazers were off to a 2-0 start.

The win over the Nuggets would be especially sweet as Brandon Roy had arguably outplayed Carmelo Anthony, they were overcoming sub-35% shooting and a non-existent presence from Aldridge, and is the Nuggets. We hate the Nuggets, particularly their arrogant, strutting, inked up Birdman Chris Anderson.

Furthermore, even though the crowd was really out of it all night, possibly due to the combination of brick-laying shooters and fouls being called on average one per minute, this felt like a playoff intensity level game. Martell Webster and Carmelo Anthony were going all Marty McSorley on one another, Nene, Kenyon Martin, Greg Oden, and Joel Przybilla looked like they were having a WWE tag-team match, and every basket felt like a huge, vital event.

But then something happened. Anthony went all Anthony, scoring 17 points and adding an assist. Portland, who had been solid on the boards and at the free throw line all night, suddenly could do neither.

Anthony hit two free throws to give Denver the Lead. Roy hit the first...and missed the second.

With Portland down two inside 1:40 of the 4th, Nene got not one, not two, but three offensive rebounds in the same possession before scoring.

Aldridge missed one of two to keep the Nuggets ahead by one.

Anthony made two free throws.

Miller missed a free throw.

Greg Oden, down 1 with 4.6 seconds left, somehow missed both free throws, and then the referees...who whistled 60 personal fouls on the night...inexplicably could not call the 60th foul of the night for 2.7 seconds. It was not for lack of hacks by the Blazers.

Be that as it may, Portland had their chances. It was their inability to pull down key rebounds or make free throws that sealed their fate. The Nuggets, meanwhile, never panicked, ran the ball through their best player, and deserved to win because of it. What a huge disappointment for Blazer fans.

Back the truck up, though. This was a very entertaining game with plenty of grist for the rivalry mill. With Denver holding a 2 point lead and with the ball, Brandon Roy made a terrific defensive stand against Anthony, forcing him into a baseline fade-away contested jumper. It is a measure of how good Anthony is that I thought it would go. It is a testament to Roy's clutch defense that it was so tough and missed.

Ultimately, Denver still won, but that iconic duel was worth the price of admission.

So was watching Oden continue to flower. Despite being saddled with foul trouble all game long, he helped Portland control the boards for the majority of the game, including pulling down 9 in under 22 minutes. He also had an impressive block on Nene in that 3-offensive rebound possession the Nuggets scored on. His offense looked better with some nice spin moves instead of the turn-over plagued mess he turned in Tuesday.

It was also thrilling watching Martell Webster bring it at both ends. He moved fluidly, getting to the rim and throwing down a couple of tremendous dunks. His defense on Anthony was at times excellent and at others Caspar-like. He is improving game by game and it is great to watch.

I would be remiss in not mentioning Rudy Fernandez and his offensive explosion. It was so good, so impressive, so awe-inspiring that for a minute you could almost forget some guy named Roy was in the midst of a 30 point night...or that ace 4th quarter guru Travis Outlaw never hit the floor in the 4th quarter. I do not remember the last time the Blazers had him for a game and he was never on the floor in money time.

Nor can I figure out why. It is not like Steve Blake and Andre Miller were irreplaceable, combining for eight points (all by Miller) on 3-14 shooting with just 8 assists. I believe strongly in Coach Nate McMillan, but I did wonder out loud why Outlaw did not replace one of them with Fernandez or Roy handling the ball.

Perhaps it had to do with Outlaw following up his Super-trout night with a horrible 1-8 shooting night. Perhaps he just got lost in the mix.

Regardless, on this night, Denver wanted it more, and did what it took to get the win.

That hurts to write. I make no claim to being impartial. I love this edition of the Blazers team. I think it is good enough to win the division, win the Conference, and compete for a title.

Nor am I alone. Nicolas Batum pointed out on his blog that McMillan called out the team and said anyone who did not think they were ready to compete for a title should leave, that is what they are playing for this year.

Roy called out the players for their practice habits, telling them it was not a championship contender level practice.

McMillan knows. Roy knows.

But on this night, the Nuggets showed that, whatever the Blazers and I believe about their chances, they still need to take another step.

My hat is off to the Nuggets. Portland will not lose too many more home games this year. In a Division race as tight as this one, now they have the huge, unenviable task of winning a game in Denver. The problem there is that by then, the Nuggets will get back JR Smith and be even tougher.

It is way early in the season to over-emphasize one game. In fact, if this serves as a wake-up call that gets the Blazers to act as a cohesive unit, to bear down and start dominating games instead of playing close and counting on Roy to win in the 4th quarter, it could turn into a good thing.

But at the moment, it really, really hurts.