“It wasn’t about weathering their storm. It was about us being the storm. It was us bringing it from the get go.”
That was Michael Malone’s message to his team prior to game 6 against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Nuggets were up 3-2 in the series and treated this game like a game 7.
“Going into this game was like a game 7 because nobody is trying to see Damian Lillard, one of the clutchest players ever in a game 7,” Michael Porter Jr said. “We knew we had to come out here and be the aggressor. We didn’t want to go to game 7. We wanted to finish it tonight.”
After getting blown out in game 4 and watching Lillard put up a historic 55 points and 12 three-pointers in game 5, the Nuggets knew they had to take care of business in Portland and they did just that.
After trailing by 14 points, Nikola Jokić went off for 20 of his 36 points in the third quarter to help the Nuggets battle back to beat the Blazers 126-115 to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Jokić went 13 of 22 from the field while Michael Porter Jr. scored 26 points.
Porter set the tone early in the first quarter by rattling off 6 three-pointers scoring 22 points in just 9 minutes. After seeing Jokić get in foul trouble early, he knew he had to step up.
“My mindset was just like we got to pick up the slack,” Porter Jr said. “Same way he has our back and taking over games late, when he’s struggling at the beginning of the game or getting in foul trouble he can count on us and we got to come through. So that was our mindset and I think we weathered the storm well.”
Monté Morris was also key in Denver’s win and contributed 22 points off the bench including clutch buckets down the stretch. He hit a big three to end the third quarter to get the Nuggets within three points and then hit another shot early in the fourth quarter to give Denver its first lead since early in the first.
“During the series everybody was telling me to be aggressive,” Morris said about his teammates motivating him to take over games. “It makes everything easier for everyone being in attack mode so hearing that really helped me in this game 5 and game 6 situation. But Will (Barton) talked to me during the whole game. Him, Jamal (Murray), PJ (Dozier) and told me what they see and I think I had like 8 points at the time and he (Will) was like yo, you get 20, we going to win!”
Morris listened to Barton’s advice and went to work. ‘Big Game Tae,’ his teammates call him, also came up big in game 5 scoring 28 points and shooting 7 of 18 from the field and 4 of 9 from long range. A walking bucket.
All of this success has been without key players Murray, Barton and Dozier who have all been sidelined with injuries since mid-April. Murray is out for the year with an ACL tear and Barton and Dozier are close to getting back out there. But when you take into consideration all the adversity the Nuggets have faced, beating a team like Portland to get to the second round of the playoffs says a lot about this team.
“We’re resilient, we’re mentally tough, we believe in ourselves, we believe in our teammates so that’s a great feeling,” Malone said. “That’s not always the case and I’ve been in this game for a long time… no matter who you call on, they’re ready to go out there and do their job.”
Denver Nuggets culture has always been the ‘next man up’ mentality and despite all the setbacks they found a way to capture the 3-seed and close out their series against the Blazers on the road in 6 games.
“I think it showed our maturity as a team,” Porter Jr. said. “A hostile environment, game 6 which was obviously very important to them and they have superstars on their team.”
If one thing has remained consistent this season it has been the Nuggets belief in themselves. They’ve continued to stay true to themselves and what they do even when others doubted them. Some have counted them out after Murray went down and said there was no way they could do anything relevant without their star guard, who put the league on notice last year in the bubble. But Porter said, this team doesn’t even pay attention to what anyone else has to say. A lot of the players don’t even use social media.
“I think we’re just such a tight knit group that doesn’t even listen to the noise,” Porter Jr said. “I know dudes don’t even pay attention to that. I don’t think Joker has social media. I don’t get on social media so we don’t really hear some of the noise so that’s just helps keeps us locked in. I didn’t even notice people were talking like that. The rest of the guys we believe in ourselves.”
Austin Rivers and Aaron Gordon also came up big down the stretch. Rivers put up 7 points and hit a big three in the fourth quarter to give Denver a 117-108 lead with less than 4 minutes left. Gordon went 4 of 8 from the field and 2 of 2 from long range to score 13 points. He hit a clutch three-pointer with 50 seconds left in the game to give the Nuggets a 124-115 lead to essentially win the game for them.
It was an all around great performance from the entire team and they stayed with it after being down by 14 points in the third quarter. The game looked over. The Nuggets looked flat. And then Jokić went off for 20 points in the third to get them within 3 points. He ignited a 30-6 scoring run which eventually carried over into the fourth quarter and won them the game.
The Nuggets will be facing the 2-seeded Phoenix Suns in round 2 of the NBA playoffs. The Suns defeated the Lakers in game 6 in Los Angeles on Thursday night. Devin Booker went off for 47 points in a 113-100 win.