ORLANDO, Fla. — They know all about the narrative and what the pundits are saying about who belongs and who doesn’t this deep into the NBA playoffs.
And the Denver Nuggets don’t care if you think they should’ve already been bounced out of the NBA bubble by now.
The bubble’s most resilient bunch was at it again Friday night, fighting off elimination and muddying up the Western Conference finals plans of the Los Angeles Clippers with a stunning second-half comeback for a 111-105 Game 5 win.
It’s the fourth time in these playoffs that Michael Malone’s team has staved off elimination, the most of any team in a postseason since the Houston Rockets did it four times in the 2015 playoffs.
They’ll have to do it again Sunday in Game 6 (1 ET, ESPN), an opportunity Malone said his team relishes, especially with seemingly everyone else having already counted his crew out. They’ve already battled back from a 3-1 deficit in the bubble (first round against Utah) to advance to this point.
These Nuggets, for some strange reason, seem extremely comfortable with being uncomfortable. And they won’t go away without a fight, no matter what Hall of Famer Charles Barkley says about them on Inside the NBA (he joked at halftime that the Nuggets were already packed up and ready to depart from the bubble).
“As far as Charles Barley,” Malone said, “we’re not going home yet. We ain’t gone fishing yet. We’re going to live to play a Game 6 and try to stretch this series out and try to win it. I know everybody’s excited about the Lakers playing the Clippers in the Western Conference finals but we’re hoping to have something to say about that.”
The Nuggets kept their season alive with contributions from up and down their roster. Veteran power forward Paul Millsap sparked them, scoring 14 of his 17 points in the second half, after getting tangled up and going chest-to-chest with Marcus Morris just before halftime.
“I think that was a huge play that nobody will probably talk about,” Malone said. “When you have a seasoned veteran who has had enough and is not just going to sit there and take it, and he stood up. And I thought his response to that situation really helped our team respond. It kind of gave us a group toughness and that was a pivotal play, a turning point in the game.”
The Nuggets went from trailing by 15 points with 9:42 to play to their first lead on a Nikola Jokic 3-pointer with 7:06 to play in the game, flipping the energy switch and snatching momentum from the Clippers on both ends of the floor.
“They played desperation ball. They didn’t have a choice,” George said. “Credit them for not wanting to go home. They played great down the stretch.”
And it was rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. who had perhaps the biggest plays down the stretch for the Nuggets. His deep 3-pointer, his only made field goal of the night, with 1:11 to play pushed a two-point lead to five. He added two rebounds and a block to help seal the win.
All this after he spent the time between Games 4 and 5 in the social media crosshairs for his postgame comments late Wednesday night, when he vented about his role after the Nuggets’ Game 4 loss. He suggested the ball had to move around, beyond the two-man game of Jokic and Jamal Murray, if the Nuggets were going to beat a team like the Clippers.
He drew the ire of superstars around the league, guys like Portland’s Damian Lillard, who took the youngster to task for speaking out of turn.
But Porter Jr. was on the floor at crunch time with the Nuggets’ season on the line.
Smdh … https://t.co/uNwDxmJgQ2
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) September 10, 2020
“Man, I think Jok[ic] found me on the wing and everybody knows it wasn’t the best shot selection,” Porter said, “but something made me shoot it, so I shot it … it was a clutch shot, but I’m glad I could help my team.”
Malone loved the block and rebound that followed, two plays on the defensive end, where Porter’s game remains weakest, while acknowledging that the rookie simple has something special about him.
Credit them for not wanting to go home. They played great down the stretch
Clippers’ Paul George
“What you love about Michael, is that whether it’s just youthful inexperience or not really understanding the magnitude of the situation, but he has supreme confidence,” Malone said. “The guy is a tireless worker. He is a gym rat and for every shot he makes in a game, he’s had thousands upon thousands of reps in a practice gym. So what it says is, he has confidence in himself. We have confidence in him.”
Porter Jr. absorbed all of the criticism that came his way between games but leaned into that confidence from his teammates and coaches.
“I kind of tried to block that out,” Porter said. “Everything I said … I stand by what I say. And I didn’t mean it in any kind of disrespectful way. My coaches and my teammates, they all know that. We talked as a team and everybody was on the same page coming into today. But Dame and those guys, I respect all those guys, so … especially those superstars in the league talking to a young guy like me. You want to listen and you don’t want to have an ego, and just think you’re always right. So it took what those guys said and I listened to it. Everybody has their opinion, but that was blocked out before today and everybody was on the same page.”
That page is filled with the stuff Malone preaches to and about his team on a regular basis. It’s the stuff that has fueled the performances of guys like Murray (26 points) and Jokic (22 and 14 rebounds) in a postseason run that has had produced its magical moments when the Nuggets appear facing the longest odds.
“I think just being a very tough, resilient group that believes,” Malone said. “We have belief. I know there’s not a lot of belief … I heard one of the commentators say the other day that seven teams are left in the bubble, or eight teams are left in the bubble and seven of them have a chance to win a championship. And we were the one that he thinks did not have a chance to win a championship.
“But we don’t listen to all that. We believe in ourselves. We believe in the process that we’ve been going through in the last five years to get us here. That is a very good basketball team over there. There is a reason they are the favorites to win it all. But … our guys believe. We’re tough. Everybody continues to count us out. That’s the way we like it and we live to die another day”
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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