DENVER - The Nuggets never trailed while taking a 3-2 lead over Portland in a second-round NBA Playoffs series Tuesday at Pepsi Center, and the soft-spoken Paul Millsap is a big reason why.
The Nuggets’ elder statesman at 34, who owns the most playoff experience on the team, won the opening tip. On the opening possession, Jamal Murray set up Nikola Jokic for the game’s first bucket.
As Jokic tells it, the veteran laid the foundation for a 124-98 Nuggets win that sees Denver go to Portland for Thursday’s Game 6 with a chance to advance to the Western Conference finals.
“He was huge,” Jokic said. “He set everything: physicality, pace, offensively, defensively. He was really huge in today’s game.”
Millsap finished with 24 points on 9 of 17 shooting, second to only Jokic’s 25 points, and added eight rebounds, but he shared little emotion outside of a quick flex towards the bench following a strong finish that resulted in a three-point play that put the Nuggets up 18 in the third quarter.
“He’s not a guy that’s going to be screaming and yelling, but I think his calm nature, his calm demeanor has an effect on our group, a young team going through this for the first time,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
“That’s reassuring. He’s kind of the calm for our team. I think that has a tremendous impact on all of our young players.”
The Nuggets had little reason to panic Tuesday.
Millsap’s first bucket, a 3-pointer, capped a 7-0 Denver spurt to open the game. His 12 first-quarter points saw the hosts lead 31-25 after one. A four-point play late in the first half put the Nuggets up 20, and Millsap had 18 points at halftime.
“He’s been phenomenal, but it’s not surprising for any of us,” Malone said. “Obviously, we’ve looked to feature him more, get him more touches. Tonight was another example of him taking advantage of that.”
Murray, who also earned the “phenomenal” label from Malone after scoring 18 points with nine assists and zero turnovers, had a put-back dunk in the third and later lobbed a pass for Mason Plumlee that put the Nuggets up 29. Jokic, who finished with 19 rebounds and six assists before fouling out, added a free throw to make it a 30-point margin in the third, and the Nuggets' bench handled most of the fourth quarter.
The most notable moment of the fourth, other than a Meyers Leonard flagrant foul on Jokic, came in the final two minutes when Juancho Hernangomez hit a corner 3. He released the shot right in front of the Nuggets’ stars watching from the bench, turned as it swished through the net and shimmied in front of teammates, drawing Millsap’s second-most evocative reaction of the night: a big smile and a couple of playful pats on the Spaniard’s behind.
After all, his mission was just about accomplished when Hernangomez put the Nuggets up 25 with 90 seconds to play.
“I came here to win,” Millsap said.
One more victory will have the Nuggets preparing for either Houston or Golden State in the conference finals, though Portland’s Damian Lillard, who led the visitors with 22 points, isn’t conceding anything yet.
“We don’t feel like we’ve played our best basketball yet, and with our back against the wall, we don’t really have a choice,” Lillard said. “Our mindset is just to get the next one, take care of home, and make it back here.”
As Millsap, and his coach - another league veteran - understand, that fourth series win won’t come without a serious challenge.
“We know going into Portland for Game 6 is going to be a really tough game,” Malone said. “My hope is that Game 6 in San Antonio, we did not come ready to play mentally and physically, I hope we have a much different mindset going into Portland for Game 6.”
Millsap is one of the few in the Denver locker room who has just about seen it all after playing for a handful of successful NBA teams in his extensive career.
“You can see he doesn’t have emotions,” Jokic said.
For a team relying on players in their first NBA postseason, that might not be a bad thing.
“Thirteen-year vet, a lot of games under his belt and he’s stepping up when we need him to step up,” Malone said.
“I think the best thing about Paul Millsap, he’s true to himself, never tries to be something he’s not.”