DENVER — Two points separated the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers after the first four, grueling games of these Western Conference semifinals.
They piled up the same number of 3-pointers and free throws as well.
The games were that good, that tight, and the difference between the two teams was negligible at best.
Then Tuesday night happened.
Paul Millsap happened. Nikola Jokic happened. Jamal Murray happened.
The manifestation of a Nuggets team that’s been dancing with a destiny that leads to the Western Conference finals, finally happened.
Their 124-98 rout of the Trail Blazers in Game 5 at Pepsi Center was the sort of declaration Nuggets coach Michael Malone has been predicting for his team since they were locked into a back-and-forth struggle with the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.
They evened the series Sunday in Portland, showing mettle beyond their years by snapping the Trail Blazers’ 12-game home winning streak that dated back to the regular season, with an inspired effort to stave off the certain doom of a 3-1 deficit.
Tuesday night’s salvo was a seismic shift in the opposite direction. The Nuggets’ biggest lead was 31 points and their intentions were plain for everyone to see.
Millsap roasted the Blazers for 24 points and eight rebounds, dominating while being featured more and executing his considerable advantage in small-ball situations.
“The best thing about Paul Millsap is he’s true to himself, he never tries to be something he’s not,” Malone said. “He’s not a rah-rah guy, he’s not a guy that’s going to be screaming and yelling. But I think his calm demeanor has an effect on our group. Young team going through all of this for the first time and when you can look to a four-time All-Star with 90 playoff games under his belt, that’s reassuring. He’s kind of the calm for our team and I think that has a tremendous impact on all of our young players.”
Two in particular during this postseason and this series, to be sure.
Jokic led the way with 25 points, 19 rebounds and six assists before fouling out late, leaving little doubt as to who deserves to wear the crown as the best big man in the league right now.
Murray was splendid again, with 18 points and nine assists, while his backcourt mate Gary Harris chipped in with 16 points and six rebounds.
Will Barton and Malik Beasley scored 10 points each off the bench, leading a 33-point bench scoring effort that will need to travel back to Portland for Thursday’s Game 6 if the Nuggets have any chance of winning three straight and ending this series in six games.
“We know going to Portland for Game 6 is going to be really tough,” Malone said, referencing his team’s Game 6 struggles in the first round. “Game 6 in San Antonio, we did not come ready to play, mentally or physically. I hope that we have a much different mindset going in to Portland for Game 6.”
The Blazers have some serious tweaking to do, in a short amount of time, as well.
Their starters didn’t even play in the fourth quarter, Terry Stotts acknowledging that the 30-point hole his team was fighting out of might have been too large, given the circumstances. And the need to preserve the energy of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and the crew for what sets up as their biggest game of the season was obvious.
“At this point, it’s one game at a time facing elimination,” Lillard said. “We know that we’re more than capable of getting it done in the next game. 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. Our mindset is to just get to the next one, take care of home and make it back here.”
Stotts has adjustments to make before Thursday night as well, after the Nuggets bludgeoned his team in the paint for a 66-44 scoring advantage, while also outrebounding them 62-44.
The decision to switch Enes Kanter’s primary defensive assignment from Jokic to Millsap Tuesday, with Al-Farouq Aminu being tasked to try and contain the much bigger Jokic, backfired as Millsap went to work immediately on Kanter.
“They just played harder than us,” Kanter said. “I think that was probably … even the coach said, probably this was our worst basketball the last six weeks. Shots didn’t fall in, on defense we weren’t really communicating with each other, we didn’t really trust each other. We’ve just got to learn from this and just go home and take care of home, because right now, that’s the most important game of the year.”
The atmosphere Thursday night at Moda Center promises to be electric. The Blazers have long enjoyed one of the best home atmospheres in the league.
But will it serve as the advantage it has in the past when the Nuggets are fresh off two straight huge wins in this series, the first on that floor?
“We have two must-wins,” Stotts said. “Somebody was going to have a must-win after tonight and it’s us. So we have two must-wins ahead of us.”
That four-overtime loss in Game 3 Friday night could have been the emotional breaking point for the Nuggets.
A school shooting Tuesday morning in a Denver suburb where Malone lives with his wife and daughters rattled the coach and an entire community. That sort of life-altering event could easily have sidetracked Malone and his team.
The Nuggets were locked in from the start. When it became clear that the Blazers weren’t going to be able to keep up the pace, they kept pushing until the final buzzer.
They understand the opportunity staring them in the face; a conference finals date with the two-time reigning champion Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, who are tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 Wednesday (10:30 ET, TNT) at Oracle Arena.
It’s a wild shift for a team that failed to play its way into the playoffs last year on the final night of the regular season, only to rebound and earn the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase this season.
If the atmosphere for Game 4 or even Game 5 seemed overwhelming, Thursday night promises to be otherworldly for both of these teams that were previously separated by so little.
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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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