It would’ve been easy for the Denver Nuggets to cave in during Game 5, accept defeat and return home. The team has been away from their families and friends for over two months, playing every 48 hours since the end of July. They have also dealt with mentally tolling situations, ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement. All of the excuses were there. But Paul Millsap refused to allow it to interfere with the Nuggets’ playoff aspirations.
With the No. 3 Nuggets’ on the brink of elimination in the Western Conference semifinals against the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, the veteran broke out of his recent struggles to help the team rally back from 16 down with a dominant third quarter. Millsap would go on a tear immediately after halftime, missing just one of his five shots and constantly attacking the rim to help Denver pull out a 111-105 victory. Entering Friday’s matchup, Denver had struggled to get to the line, going just 18.2 times per game during the playoffs (last). Millsap’s aggression in that 12-minute stretch paid off as he went six times, converting on five attempts.
“He gave us life,” Nuggets lead guard Jamal Murray said after the game.
This is why the Nuggets relentlessly pursued Millsap as a free agent during the summer of 2017. The team already had plenty of young talent in Nikola Jokić, Murray, and Will Barton III among others. What the team needed to take the next step was leadership and Millsap has delivered since his arrival.
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His veteran authority was apparent in the waning seconds of the first half. With 26 seconds remaining, Millsap and Marcus Morris were jostling for position for a rebound of a Jokić’s missed three-point attempt. Morris shoved Millsap in the back and started trash-talking. Millsap immediately got into the Clippers forward’s face. Although teammates and ultimately referees separated the two men, Millsap’s message was clear: They might be the favorites, but we’re not backing down without a fight.
“We’re not going to let these guys just come in and push us around,” Millsap explained after the game. “That’s what really sparked us. We want to prove a point that we’re not going to be bullied, we’re not going to be intimidated.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone called it the “turning point of the game.”
“I think that was a huge play that nobody will probably talk about. You have a seasoned veteran who has had enough and wasn’t going to just sit there and take it,” Malone said. “He stood up and I thought his response to that situation really helped our team respond to that,” Malone said. “It kind of gave us a group toughness. That was a pivotal play.”
Millsap added: “It just changed our mentality. “I think if we add a bit more physicality to what we do, we’ll be alright [for the rest of the series].”
It was a moment Millsap needed as well. A four-time All-Star who has averaged 14 points and 7.3 boards during a successful 14-year career, his recent struggles in the 2020 postseason had some observers questioning if he can still contribute at a high level. Before Friday’s game, Millsap was averaging 8.0 points, 3.9 rebounds while shooting 45.5 percent during the Nuggets’ current playoff run.
“I left my rhythm back in Denver,” Millsap said jokingly. “It [the altercation with Morris] kind of woke up me and I was able to get in my zone, get out there and just play.”
Millsap appeared in 996 regular season games and wrapped up his 112th postseason game in Game 5. He has had an accomplished career with memorable outings, including a career-high 46 points against the LeBron James and Dwyane Wade-led Heat in 2010. If there’s one he’s still searching for, it’s an NBA title. Throughout the offseason, Millsap extolled how this Nuggets team might give him one of his last real chances at winning a title and pointed to the talent of the team and the chemistry in the locker room as the reasons why.
When the Nuggets fell to 3-1 for a second-straight playoff series, that opportunity appeared to be dwindling away. But after an impressive Game 5 victory, Millsap proved he still has enough in the tank to help the Nuggets get there.