DENVER — It’s not the altitude.
That’s the easy answer for why the Denver Nuggets had the best home record during the regular season.
The real culprit is the waves and waves of talent, size and versatility these young Nuggets are bringing to the Western Conference semfinals.
They are by far the youngest group still alive in the 2019 playoffs. And despite coach Mike Malone’s refusal to use that “young” tag as a descriptor for his team, they have only two players — veteran power forward Paul Millsap and center Mason Plumlee — who had ever set foot in this round of the playoffs prior to Monday night’s 121-113 Game 1 win against the Portland Trail Blazers at Pepsi Center.
It is no surprise, then, that Millsap was the focus for the Nuggets early on. He made four of his first five shots and finished the first quarter with 10 points, setting the tone for the rest of the Nuggets.
“We’ve been playing inside-out all year,” Millsap said. “That’s where our strength comes from. For us to be effective, we’ve got to establish something down low inside-out. I think when we do that and start games off like that, guys start hitting shots and the rhythm is there. It’s up to us to set the tone.”
Millsap did exactly that … and Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray took it from there. That dual force of talent combined for 60 points and 14 assists and made play after play to beat back the Blazers down the stretch.
“We just adjusted,” Murray said. “Joker got into the middle of the paint and was able to make some plays. Gary [Harris] hit some big shots and ‘Sap was great as well. We have a lot of weapons and the ball was moving for us early.”
There’s another reasonable explanation as to why these Nuggets are so good at home.
It is an established fact that role players in the NBA play better at home. When a team has a hand-picked, organic bunch that fits together as well as the Nuggets do, you get a team that’s been a nightmare for foes at home (an NBA-best 34-7 in 2018-19).
Harris and Torrey Craig, the other two starters, played huge roles in Game 1. They were putting in work on both ends, particularly with their size and length defensively on Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The same can be said about reserves Malik Beasley, Monte Morris and big man Mason Plumlee, all of whom made timely plays on both ends.
“They play faster and better at home,” Lillard said after his 39-point, six-assist effort Monday night.
Denver earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase this season on the strength of its performances here all season. But they are far from a finished product.
That they’re not even close to being what they could be is what is scary for the Nuggets, the rest of the West and the entire league. They are still figuring out who they are … and yet are three wins from the West finals.
“It’s great, it’s part of the goal, you know?” Harris said, as his amazing reverse layup and chase down block on Lillard late serving as two of Game 1’s best plays. “One win down, we’ve got thee more to go. We are not satisfied. We have to come in, locked in, and ready to play Game 2 [Wednesday night], because if we lose Game 2 this one doesn’t really matter like that.”
Monday’s game was sloppy defensively and there were some frayed nerves at times, too. Both factors kept Denver from creating any lasting distance from Portland. The Nuggets showed resilience beyond their years, making plays to finish this one off after dropping Game 1 in the first round to the San Antonio Spurs.
That’s perspective Malone sees paying off now. His young group is learning and comprehending the playoff lessons they’re learning in real time.
Just as they leaned on that to survive their first round series against San Antonio with a down-to-the-wire Game 7 win Saturday night, they tapped into that collective energy to outlast Lillard and the Blazers last night.
“Obviously, Saturday night, an emotional high winning Game 7. That was probably my biggest concern tonight,” Malone said. “Obviously, you’re worried about guarding them. But how would we reach from that emotional hangover? I thought or guys did a pretty good job. Obviously, defensively we have to be a lot better moving forward. Defense was not a part of the game from either team tonight. But we were able to get enough stops. … You use the word resiliency and that’s very appropriate.”
The budding duo of Jokic (37 points, nine rebounds, six assists) and Murray (23 points, eight assists and just one turnover) proving to be too much for the Blazers to handle after halftime and especially down the stretch.
They are the two who could drive this team to places no one imagined last season, when the Nuggets missed out on the playoffs on the last night of the regular season with a loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Murray is still learning be the point guard his team needs, both as a scorer and facilitator. Jokic is still getting comfortable in his All-Star and Kia MVP-candidate skin, which requires him to be a much more aggressive scorer in addition to the brilliant facilitator that makes the Nuggets’ offense go.
“He just picks his spots,” Murray said of Jokic’s evolution. “He doesn’t force many plays, he sees the open man, but he’s such a willing passer. He also gets his teammates involved and sometimes when has an easy shot, he doesn’t take it. But that hasn’t been the case, especially in games where we were down 2-1 against San Antonio. He was just being aggressive, Game 7, being aggressive. I think he’s found his mission when he has to go the rack and when he has to defer and pass it.”
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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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