The Denver Nuggets entered Sunday night’s contest against the Milwaukee Bucks with the rare opportunity to gain ground in the Western Conference playoff race. The Los Angeles Clippers dropped a big game at home to the Indiana Pacers and the New Orleans Pelicans fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Timberwolves were trailing the Utah Jazz as Denver and Milwaukee tipped off, which meant that in the event that result should hold, Denver would control their playoff destiny with a win of their own. It was that simple — or at least it looked that way. It never is with this team. Minnesota would indeed lose, and the Nuggets picked up a 128-125 overtime win in one of the wildest, and strangest games ever played.
Whatever air of excitement that the Pepsi Center contained ahead of Sunday night’s game, it had dissipated after the first twelve minutes of play. Only Paul Millsap, who scored Denver’s first seven points, had any offensive rhythm. The rest of the team struggled mightily and the Nuggets shot just 41 percent in the first quarter. Milwaukee, meanwhile, shot over 60 percent from the field in the quarter as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker looked ready to push the game out of reach before the second quarter began. The Bucks outscored the Nuggets 34-22 in the first. All hope seemed lost. Then came the second quarter.
The Nuggets looked like an entirely different basketball team in the second — in fact, they looked like the team head coach Michael Malone had dreamt of seeing all season long. They ratcheted up the defensive intensity and they were able to convert defense into offense for the first time in ages. They forced turnovers, got stops and protected the defensive glass.
On the other end, Denver returned to the ultra-successful and ever-potent ‘Jokic-ball’. The game flowed through the Nuggets best player and Denver flipped the script on its head. The Nuggets outscored the Bucks 41-20 in the second. Hope had been restored. Then came the third quarter.
Basketball is a game of runs, have you heard? This game took that idiom to new heights. After putting themselves back into position to win with a monster second quarter, Denver reverted to the miserable basketball that yielded such dreadful results in the first. The Nuggets managed just 16 points in the third quarter as seemingly every shot they took clanked off the rim.
Denver looked like a team dejected and resigned to an inevitable defeat at the hands of Giannis and Parker. Parker would put up a season high 35 points in this game and he dropped nine of those in the third on 4-5 from the field. He stuck dagger-after-dagger into the backs of the Nuggets, though much to his surprise, they would not die.
It’s hard to articulate just how out of reach this game felt as the fourth quarter began. Those in attendance could virtually feel the Nuggets playoff hopes slipping away with each possession as Milwaukee moved in for the kill. The Bucks pushed the pedal to the floor, and pushed the lead to a game high 18 points with 7:34 remaining.
Some in attendance were already headed for the exits and it’s hard to blame those who called it a night early. Milwaukee was controlling both the pace and the style of the game. It was theirs to lose. Just imagine the surprise of those fans when they checked the final score.
From the 7:34 mark on, Denver flipped a switch and exerted their will. They returned to ‘Jokic-ball’ and they ratcheted up the defensive intensity just as they did in the second. Denver’s best players came alive as Millsap, Jokic and Murray chipped away at the lead with clutch free throws, timely offensive rebounds and a tremendous amount of success near the rim. Ever so slowly, Milwaukee’s lead began to shrink. Every so slowly, hope began to creep back into the hearts of the Nuggets faithful.
The Bucks still led by 10 with four minutes remaining, but the game descended into madness from there. Giannis was called for an offensive foul on a drive to the rim. It was his sixth foul of the game, resulting in an ejection — a massive break for Denver and one that was compounded by the ‘Greek Freak’ picking up a technical foul on his way off the court. Jamal Murray hit the free throw to cut the lead down to single digits.
Denver kept pushing and remarkably, they were able to cut it to a one possession game with 30 seconds left. After dribbling the clock down to roughly eight seconds of game time, Parker hoisted up a fadeaway jumper. He missed. Will Barton grabbed the rebound and Malone called his final timeout of regulation.
Malone drew up an inbounds play which saw Paul Millsap get free and cut to the left corner for a game-tying three. He’d never get the shot up though, as the pass slipped out of his hands for a turnover, and the playoffs had seemingly slipped out of Denver’s grasp. The Nuggets were in need of a miracle. They got one.
Murray stole Milwaukee’s inbounds pass and put up a desperation three to tie the game. Murray’s shot missed, but he was fouled and he stepped to the line for three of the biggest free throws anyone has taken all season. He drilled all three of them. The game went to overtime.
The absence of Giannis proved to be damning for Milwaukee in extra time as the Nuggets were able to push the lead to seven. It wouldn’t have been fitting though for this game to have ended in such non-dramatic fashion. The Bucks made one final push, cutting the lead all the way down to three before sending Malik Beasley to the line with 16 seconds left. Beasley missed both free throws.
Eric Bledsoe scored a quick layup to cut the lead down to one and the Bucks put Beasley on the line once again. Beasley sank them both — redemption, relief. the Nuggets held on for one of the more improbable victories you will ever see.
With the 128-125 win, and the Wolves indeed losing to Utah, Denver now controls their own destiny. Should the Nuggets win out, they’re in.
“We still believe,” Michael Malone said after the game. That faith will be tested when Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers come to town on Tuesday night. The game tips off at 7:00 pm MT.