ORLANDO, Fla. — Paul Millsap had seen and heard enough. The verbal jabs and blatant signs of disrespect from the LA Clippers had reached the point of no return for the Denver Nuggets’ elder statesman.
With 50.1 seconds to play before halftime of Game 5 in that Western Conference semifinal, and the Nuggets absorbing a pounding from the Clippers, Millsap decided it was time to take a stand.
If the Nuggets, down 3-1 in the series and facing elimination, were going out, they were going to do it giving as good as they were getting from the favored Clippers. So when Marcus Morris Sr. and Millsap got tangled up under the basket fighting for space to chase a rebound, it clicked. Morris turned to face down the man shoving back and was met face-to-face by the usually measured Millsap, who was done backing up.
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Everything about that series — and ultimately this postseason — changed in that moment for the Nuggets, who rallied for a dramatic Game 5 win to keep their season alive. And then did the same again in Game 6 and Game 7 to shock the Clippers and set up a date with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
But in that moment, Millsap recognized the need to show the Nuggets had arrived and had earned the right to that prime real estate as much as the Clippers, Lakers or anyone else toiling in the NBA bubble the past two plus months.
“I felt it. it definitely felt like everything changed right there,” Millsap, the only player on the Nuggets’ roster over 30, and a no-nonsense veteran with universal respect in the locker room, said of that defining moment between he and Morris. “And to be honest, it should have happened earlier. I know the first game they blew us out and there was a lot of chatter and a lot of talk from those guys, telling us we were soft and all that stuff. So it was past overdue. And at that time, for me at least, enough was enough.”
Jamal Murray, All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and the rest of the Nuggets felt the same way. And it manifested in a historic effort to reach the conference finals — the Nuggets are the first team in NBA playoff history to rally from 3-1 deficits in multiple series in the same postseason; they did so in the first round against Utah as well.
But what might look like some overnight fluke or global-pandemic-produced success story to the outside world is something totally different to the Nuggets. It’s the fruits of a relentless five-year grind to build a legitimate contender under coach Mike Malone, whose team has shown a resilience unmatched in this bubble environment.
Against all odds, the Nuggets believe. Even when no one else outside of the organization, and their most loyal fans, is buying them as a true contender.
Murray demanded respect after they crushed the Clippers in Game 7, calling out everyone who has and continues to doubt them.
“You’ve got [Shaquille O’Neal], you’ve got Charles [Barkley], you’ve got — I think — [ESPN NBA writer] Zach Lowe … [ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith], all y’all better start giving this team some damn respect, because we put in the work and we’ve got a resilient team,” Murray said. “We shouldn’t have been down 3-1, but to come back from 3-1 against the Clippers is a big achievement. So it was fun just to change that narrative, where y’all can finally shut up and start to change that narrative and putting us in a better light.”
Malone has been preaching belief in the system, in each other and in the work put in by the entire group from the moment he arrived. The Nuggets have drafted extremely well — Jokic, Murray, Gary Harris and Monte Morris, along with prized rookies Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol — and found the ideal pieces in free agency or on the fringes — Millsap, Jerami Grant, Torrey Craig, Mason Plumlee and others — to flesh out one of the deepest and most versatile rosters in the league.
They have a player development program that has helped Jokic pivot from overweight toward two-time All-NBA status as arguably the best center in the league. Murray, the breakout star of this postseason, is on a similar trajectory.
“His development, his growth… I think when we showed the belief that we had in him by the contract we gave him, you’re a foundational piece, we believe in you,” Malone said, referencing Murray’s recent max extension. “This is something you have to understand, take responsibility for. You’ve got to be better on the court, your preparation, your professionalism, your work ethic, and your leadership. He’s taken all those things into account and tried to be better in every one of those areas, which is all you want. Now you have two core pieces in Nikola and Jamal that are still very young, bought in, have grown up in front of our eyes.
“I think most NBA teams, most pro sports teams don’t do it that way. It’s always a quick fix, go grab a guy, rent a guy. We built this from the ground up, which makes it that much more satisfying.”
The coach is another key ingredient. With the unyielding energy of Malone, who celebrated his 49th birthday on the same night they popped the Clippers to clinch the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals since 2009, the Nuggets have a leader steeped in the process.
“I think the biggest question aside from themes, plays, personnel, is are our guys satisfied?” Malone said. “Man, we just made Playoff history, down 3-1, down 3-1 [again]. We’ve gotten to the Western Conference Finals only the second time in franchise history. Take a breath, come up for air. The Lakers aren’t coming up for air. They’ve been waiting. I know LeBron, having been around him. They’re going to try to come out and send a message.
“I don’t think our guys are satisfied. That’s going to be the greatest challenge, tomorrow can we match the intensity. I thought in Game 1 against the Clippers we did it for a quarter and a half, couldn’t sustain it. I think we were just gassed. Hopefully tomorrow we’re able to put forth a 48-minute effort.”
The Lakers aren’t buying the humble underdog approach. James and Malone go back to their days in Cleveland, when they were chasing the same things they’ll fight for in this series together. Malone was on Mike Brown’s staff, working with LeBron before he was the three-time champion and Finals regular he would become in Miami and through that second stint in Cleveland.
Knowing Malone’s character and work ethic, watching his team take the Clippers apart down the stretch in three straight games is all the evidence James needed to know that they’re in for a scrap in this series.
“Very resilient, very confident, very driven, very well-coached team,” LeBron said. “It takes a lot of energy, effort, a lot of desperation to be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit. They did it twice. So the respect level is out of this world for what we have for this ballclub. That’s how we’re going into this series, understanding what they’re capable of, where they stand.
“When you work hard on your craft, you see others working just as hard on their craft, it becomes organic and it becomes mutual respect. I know how much Coach Mo put into our schemes, put into our productivity, put into what we needed to do to go out and win ballgames when we were together in Cleveland. I saw that. So the respect level, just seeing what he was putting into his craft, it made it easy for me to grow likeness to him.”
Millsap said the Nuggets won’t change their approach, not now. Not after what they’ve been through to get here. So he’ll gladly continue to remind his teammates that for all the work they’ve put in, there remains plenty of folks who view them the way the Clippers did.
He doesn’t have to do any convincing in the locker room.
“I mean, even when we beat the Clippers, they were talking how the Clippers lost,” Jokic said. “They don’t think about us. Not even the Lakers, not even anybody.”
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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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