Preview: Denver Nuggets look to force Game 7 against Clippers

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets needed a boost.

Down double digits late in the second quarter and to begin the third, Denver once again looked like it was on the verge of a Game 5 loss. Yet once again, the Nuggets dug deep and found enough on both ends of the floor to pull out a comeback victory to extend another playoff series.

READ MORE: Millsap steps up for Denver

This time, it was the veteran Paul Millsap who led the charge with a 14-point third quarter and a brief verbal exchange with LA’s Marcus Morris Sr., which instilled a new sense of fight in Denver.

“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,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “He stood up and I thought his response to that situation really helped our team respond to that. It kind of gave us a group toughness. That was a pivotal play.”

What followed was a fourth quarter full of clutch shotmaking from Denver’s young core of Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. Each player made key contributions late in the game as Denver escaped with a 111-105 victory to extend the series to a Game 6 on Sunday.

The Clippers received impressive performances from their star duo, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combining for 62 points in the loss. However, LA’s supporting cast failed to provide much help, with the Clippers’ second unit only combining for 16 points.

MORE: Game 5 takeaways

Here are the key storylines to focus on in Game 6.

Can Millsap build off Game 5?

The 35-year-old forward has struggled throughout the 2020 postseason, something that even he will admit. Before Friday’s game, Millsap was averaging 8.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game while shooting 45.5 percent from the field during Denver’s first 11 playoff games.

However, his 17-point, six-rebound performance in Game 5 was the spark Denver needed, especially in the third quarter, when Millsap scored 14 points.

“I left my rhythm back in Denver,” Millsap said jokingly. Well if the four-time All-Star has indeed found his rhythm, it could spell trouble for LA. When Millsap has it going offensively, he is able to mix in a variety of post moves and spread out to the 3-point line. On the defensive end, Millsap still uses his impressive basketball IQ and court awareness to be in the right positions, whether that be sliding over to help protect the rim or making things difficult for LA’s perimeter players.

With his two-way abilities and veteran presence on display in Game 5, it’s easy to see why Denver was so focused on adding Millsap to the team back in 2017. Now comes the tough task of following up on his most impressive and important playoff performance this season, something Denver will need if it hopes to force a Game 7.

Jokić and Murray must continue to lead the way

One of the major storylines throughout this series has been LA’s stellar defense on Murray. The 23-year-old guard scored less than 19 points in three of the first four games of the series, with his 27-point performance in Game 2 leading to a Nuggets victory.

Through the first half of Game 5, it looked to be more of the same for Murray, who was struggling to hit shots against the Clippers’ smothering perimeter defense. And yes, although Murray did finish 9 of 25 from the field, he made some key shots late in the game, including a side-step 3-pointer to give Denver a six-point lead with just over five minutes remaining.

An aggressive Murray who continues to hunt the shots he was regularly making in Denver’s first-round series will only benefit the offense. At some point, those shots will become more open and Murray will knock a few of the contested attempts down, thus giving him confidence and helping him find a rhythm for a Nuggets attack that can use all the points it can get against this elite Clippers defense.

For Jokić, Game 5 continued his string of impressive performances in this series. After a slow start to the series in Game 1, the Serbian big man has posted four-consecutive double-doubles and is averaging 24.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on 51.3 percent shooting from the floor. Another stellar performance from Denver’s star player in Game 6 could go a long way in forcing another Game 7.

Can Denver’s second unit step up again?

Heading into Game 5, the Clippers had regularly won the battle between the second units in this series. That wasn’t much of a surprise given the talent and depth that LA boasts off the bench, led by 2020 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams.

However, that script was reversed Friday, as Denver’s bench came to play and outscored LA’s 29-16. Monte Morris led the charge with 12 points, while Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig combined for 10 points.

However, the most significant contributions from the reserves came from Michael Porter Jr. in the fourth quarter. The rookie forward scored all seven of his points in the final 1:11 of the game, highlighted by a clutch 3-pointer over Lou Williams to give Denver a five-point lead that they wouldn’t surrender. Porter Jr. also had a highlight block at the rim against Ivica Zubac and dished a nice alley-oop assist to Plumlee as Denver was making its comeback.

If the Nuggets can win the bench battle in Game 6 and Jokić and Murray can step up to lead the team, Denver has a real shot of forcing another Game 7 in these playoffs.

Game 6 will tip at 11 a.m. MT and will air on ESPN (Radio: KKSE 92.5FM).

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