Somewhere between Paul Millsap’s personal scoring spree, or Mason Plumlee’s alley-oop jam, or Michael Porter Jr.’s clutch 3-pointer late in Friday’s Game 5, a thought struck Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
“That second half was so much fun,” said Malone on Saturday, hours after his team declined to be eliminated for the fourth time this postseason.
Not that their 3-1 first-round comeback against Utah wasn’t an incredible historic ride in itself, but Friday’s comeback against the Clippers to force a Game 6 was different.
It crystallized the ethos of this Nuggets team. It confirmed all the instances of unlikely resilience they had shown this season, from their seven-man win in Salt Lake City to their victory over the NBA best Bucks after arriving at the team hotel at a wicked hour.
And whether their 68-day bubble tour ends in Sunday’s Game 6, or the Nuggets hit another Game 7, Malone is confident the extensive road trip has paid off. That means new heights for Jamal Murray, new responsibilities for upcoming star Michael Porter Jr. and new strains to test themselves.
“I hope we all enjoy this journey we’re on,” said Malone. “We often always worry about the destination. And what is our goal? Our goal is to win a championship. And we all can’t wait for that to happen, at some point, whenever that is, this year or years to come. But for me I have to remind myself because I loved last night. I liked seeing our guys behind 16 points and fighting back and winning the way we did. So enjoy the journey. “
Malone really enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t just Nikola Jokic or Murray who helped their sweeping Game 5 win over the Clippers. Plumlee’s screens cleared Murray’s eyes, and Torrey Craig’s bustle set the table for Millsap’s buckets. Monte Morris held the second unit steady and Jerami Grant knocked over the clutch’s three-pointers. Gary Harris used all six of his mistakes while wrestling with the Clippers.
Against a team that strongly preferred to win the series, and perhaps the title itself, everyone had to move in the same direction, which should not be taken for granted given the mental toll the bubble has taken on each team’s players .
But as indicated by their determination in the second half, the Nuggets have not yet booked their tickets for DIA or Serbia. There may be more fun to be had.
With 3-2, the Clippers are already betting on the house with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer. The pressure to win is immediate. The Nuggets, on the other hand, play with house money.
“That team we’re playing is an experienced team, who took all of their chips and put them in the center of the table and said,” We’re all in it, “said Malone. “We didn’t. We are still a young team building, growing, adding and learning more about our players.”
The reason the Nuggets hope to force yet another Game 7 is the same reason they are a dangerous, brave outfit, maybe even for a title contender.
“We have nothing to lose,” said Malone. “Everyone has written us off.”
And before you wonder if that’s Malone’s spin, or a feeble attempt at writing a story, consider Jokic’s take. Their superstar center doesn’t tend to call it any other way than how he sees it. Somehow, the naturally laid-back All-Star can face elimination even more comfortably.
“How do we do that?” he thought for a moment. ‘I think the locker room is a little, a little looser, funnier, if I may say that, when we’re in elimination games. The guys are, “We just go there and have fun.” It’s a bit relaxed. We don’t have that much pressure. “
If that’s the attitude, it’s no wonder they’ve gone 5-1 in elimination games for the past two years. What should be called attention when there is nothing to lose? Jokic and his teammates have turned the equation around, putting all the pressure on the Clippers heading for Sunday’s affair.
If their free and easy style translates into more engaging comebacks, the Nuggets could be in a different Game 7 again. And even if they don’t, the progress they’ve made was well worth the price of admission.