DENVER | Emmanuel Mudiay nitpicked his performance even after hitting two big free throws in the closing seconds and blocking a critical shot.
“I’m my hardest critic,” the Denver Nuggets rookie said, quickly pointing out that he missed two early free throws and had two turnovers.
But this was exactly what the Nuggets envisioned when they took him with the No. 7 pick overall. Mudiay had 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, two blocks and those clinching free throws in a 108-104 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night.
“He grew up tonight,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “It hasn’t been easy for him. I’ve been on him. … He made big plays for us.”
Earlier in the season, Mudiay was a little timid and afraid of making mistakes. Not against Portland. He was forward-thinking — just like Malone wants.
“When I’m aggressive and not playing like a robot, good things happen for me and my teammates,” Mudiay said. “If we continue to play team basketball like that and everybody doing our job, we’re going to be fine.”
J.J. Hickson came up clutch, too, with 19 points and 13 boards. His biggest contributions were four straight free throws over the final 1:49 to keep the Blazers at bay. This after going 1 of 7 earlier in the game at the line.
“I gained a little more of Coach’s trust to keep me in the game down the stretch, because I showed I could make free throws,” Hickson said.
Kenneth Faried added 17 — and drew a key late charge — as the Nuggets ended an eight-game skid to the Trail Blazers.
With Denver up 106-104, Mudiay connected on two free throws. He then blocked Damian Lillard’s layup to close out Denver’s first win at home this season.
“The energy was contagious tonight, between all my teammates,” Mudiay said. “It was definitely good.”
Lillard led Portland with 30 points. Backcourt mate CJ McCollum had a rough shooting night early, but scored 12 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Blazers in the game.
Portland took a lead into the fourth quarter for a second straight night, and again couldn’t close it out.
On Sunday, the Blazers blew a 13-point lead in the final quarter during a 120-103 home loss to Detroit.
Lillard had a four-point play with 4.6 seconds remaining in the third quarter as he launched a deep 3-pointer as Foye tried to grab him. He hit the basket and the free throw to give the Blazers an 80-79 lead.
Denver grabbed the lead for good on a dunk by Hickson with 4:17 remaining.
“It’s not discouraging because it’s so early,” Lillard said. “But we don’t want to keep having the same thing happen over and over again.”
Trail Blazers: The Blazers had all five starters score in double figures. … Reserve Allen Crabbe added 11.
Nuggets: F Kostas Papanikolaou scored his first basket in a Nuggets uniform early in the second quarter. The 6-foot-8 forward was acquired in the deal that sent Ty Lawson to Houston over the summer. Papanikolaou was waived in September, but brought back last week.
Minutes before tip, the injury-plagued Nuggets announced backup point guard Jameer Nelson was a scratch because of a lower back ailment. They were already missing Joffrey Lauvergne (back), Wilson Chandler (hip) and Jusuf Nurkic (knee).
With Nelson hobbled, Randy Foye brought the ball up the court when rookie Mudiay was out of the game. Foye had 13 points.
Lillard and McCollum have been averaging 48.7 points a game this season, the second-highest total behind only Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (56.4).
The hard-to-guard Lillard had 20 points at halftime, but was held to 10 in the second half.
“I am not frustrated,” Lillard said. “As a competitor, after you lose a game, you sit there and you think about everything you could have done better as a team. You aren’t happy with it. But I’m happy with where we are as a team.”
Trail Blazers: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday.
Nuggets: Host the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday.