With their backcourt depleted by injuries, how important has Austin Rivers become for the Denver Nuggets?
The Denver Nuggets took a 2-1 series lead with 120-115 win over the Portland Trail Blazers Thursday night. MVP candidate Nikola Jokic (36 points, 11 rebounds, five assists) led the way, with Austin Rivers adding 21 points (16 in the fourth quarter; 4-for-5 from 3-point range in the final period).
When the New York Knicks traded for Derrick Rose, Rivers had not play in that backcourt rotation. He was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder at the deadline, then immediately waived. On April 20, a little over two months after he last played for the Knicks, the Nuggets signed Rivers to a 10-day contract and he was then signed for the rest of the season.
How important has Austin Rivers been to the Denver Nuggets?
Over a six-game stretch late in the regular season, with Jamal Murray (ACL) and P.J. Dozier (strained adductor) out, Rivers got more minutes (29.3 per game) and averaged 14.0 points per game on 51.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Going 4-2 in those games helped Denver secure the No. 3 seed in the West.
Rivers has started all three games of the series against Portland thus far, topping 30 minutes twice. Murray is of course out for the season, and Dozier doesn’t appear close to returning. Will Barton (right hamstring) has yet to play in the series, to further deplete the Nuggets’ backcourt depth.
Besides what he can provide as a shooter and scorer, Rivers brought 45 previous games of playoff experience with him to the Nuggets. That surely helped on Thursday night, when he scored nearly half of Denver’s 36 fourth-quarter points along with three rebounds and one assist. Two of his four 3-pointers in the final quarter came in “clutch time” (less than five minutes left).
Rivers has had to become a key part of coach Michael Malone’s rotation. But make no mistake, the veteran guard will continue to be an important player as the Nuggets try to advance in the playoffs.