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Five Takeaways from an improbable Nuggets comeback victory in Game 5

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
  • Michael Porter Jr. walked the walk after he talked the talk
  • Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic did just enough
  • Paul Millsap had some big time plays
  • Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the series
  • Denver’s closing lineup is their best lineup

Resilience is a word that I’ve used to describe the Denver Nuggets throughout the year, and the bubble has more than solidified that trait in my mind. The Denver Nuggets are a resilient bunch, and they just won’t go away.

For as many people as have picked the Los Angeles Clippers to advance (raises hand) the series has really shown that the two teams are closer than we initially thought. After giving up Game 1 due to exhaustion and fatigue from the first seven game series Denver played, the Nuggets have been close with the Clippers in each of the last four games. Denver won Game 2 by nine points. They lost Game 3 by six points. They lost Game 4 by 11 points. They won Game 5 tonight by six points. Eliminating the initial blowout loss, the Nuggets are overall a minus-2 in plus-minus in the series, basically playing the Clippers even.

Here are my five takeaways from tonight:


Michael Porter Jr. walked the walk

After a wild postgame press conference in Game 4 in which Michael Porter Jr. unequivocally said too much about his personal role and the play calls and got called out for it, there was a lot of pressure on the rookie to play well in Game 5. He talked a big game, but could he perform with the spotlight shining about as brightly on him as it has even shown on him before?

He performed.

It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t until the last 90 seconds where he actually made major contributions on the offensive end, but defensively is where he put in excellent work. The Nuggets needed him to be a factor on that end, especially down the stretch. His rotations, hustle, and execution were all good enough to justify being on the floor, and it afforded him the opportunity to make big plays late in the game. With the Nuggets offense dead in the water down the stretch with what they had been doing, Jokic whips a pass over to MPJ to see what the rookie could do.

Well...

It was nice to see Jamal Murray gesture to Jokic to pass the ball that direction. Porter had Lou Williams on him and had what amounted to an open three. He had the confidence to take it. It was great to see.

He also made an impressive block on Ivica Zubac’s dunk attempt in the closing seconds and grabbed a contested rebound. That may have been more impressive than the shot, and it’s great to see Porter making winning plays on both ends of the floor. That’s how you earn shot attempts and the respect/trust of your teammates.

Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic did JUST enough

It clearly wasn’t perfect. Jamal Murray will be the first to say he wasn’t efficient enough tonight at 9-of-25 from the field, but he came through when it mattered, hitting three three-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Nuggets retake the lead late. His 26 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists were just enough for the Nuggets to get over the hump, and Murray limiting his turnovers once again proved to be a key difference.

Nikola Jokic was very similar. His 22 points don’t really stand out, but when he hit those shots made a great deal of difference. Like Murray, he hit multiple jump shots in the fourth quarter, from the mid-range shots he’s grown so adept at in isolation as well as pick-and-pop three-pointers late in the game. Jokic continues to prove he’s a big game player, doing exactly what Denver needs scoring wise to win high pressure games. In addition, his 14 rebounds, five assists, one steal, and two blocks stand out in the box score. His defense against Montrezl Harrell in the fourth quarter and subsequent mismatch on the other end forced the Clippers to close with Zubac, and Jokic hit a big three over Zubac in the closing minutes.

Both of Denver’s stars are big time. Murray has been more up and down this series, but his ability to hit shots and make great decisions when it matters stands out. Jokic’s consistency and high level performance make all of this possible too.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Paul Millsap was a difference maker in Game 5

It certainly felt like the momentum of the game changed when Marcus Morris elbowed Paul Millsap in the head and Millsap took exception to it. The Nuggets were down 56-40 and about to go into half. Millsap and Morris were fighting for position on a rebound on consecutive possessions and didn’t like the way each other was handling it. Morris was the first one to apply a major blow, and Millsap got in his face for it right afterward.

From that moment on, Millsap scored 15 points by himself over the next 14 minutes of game time, doing so at the free throw line, in transition, on post moves, and three-pointers. It was an impressive display and exactly what Jokic and Murray needed in the third quarter at a point where both were struggling to score efficiently. Millsap saved Denver’s bacon by turning back the clock, and it saved Denver’s season.

Despite the fact that Millsap didn’t close, I think the Nuggets still need to keep going to Paul Millsap in the first, second, and third quarters. He may not score 17 points, but Denver needs a way to keep the pressure off their two stars as much as possible.

Kawhi Leonard is the best player between these two teams

It wasn’t much of a statement to make, but it’s impressive that Kawhi Leonard has been the best player on the floor overall given what Nikola Jokic has done this series.

Let’s compare the numbers of Leonard, Paul George, Jokic, and Murray in the first five games:

  • Kawhi Leonard: 26.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.4 steals, 48.0/33.3/87.5 splits
  • Paul George: 21.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals, 47.4/42.5/85.7 splits
  • Nikola Jokic: 24.2 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 4.6 turnovers, 51.6/39.3/75.0 splits
  • Jamal Murray: 19.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 37.6/42.4/92.9 splits

Leonard is the versatile two-way guy that fans, media, and teams generally look at as the championship winning players throughout history. He’s the guy who reminds people of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant more than any of the other three. Kawhi’s consistently putting together performances (other than Game 2) that help the rest of the team fall into place.

Jokic has definitely been the second best player though, and he’s consistently pushing Leonard for that best player title with the way he orchestrates things on both ends. Jokic’s defense in the fourth quarter was excellent, and he continues to make plays for himself and others on the offensive end.

How this series will be decided (in my opinion) is whether Murray or George is the third best guy. Murray’s efficiency hasn’t been there for the most part, but he’s been a playmaker for others in this series while limiting his mistakes, has played solid defense, and the three-point shot is working for him. If Murray outperformances George for the rest of the series, it may be the Nuggets moving on to the Western Conference Finals. Who’d have thought?

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Denver’s closing lineup is legit

On both ends of the floor, the lineup of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Jerami Grant, and Nikola Jokic continues to excel. Tonight, it was a +8 in seven minutes, the best of any individual five-man unit for Denver. In the entire playoffs, the lineup is +11 in just 24 minutes. Those players haven’t seen the floor together all that often, and for the Nuggets, that may be the unit Denver needs to go to in Game 6 to prevent elimination once again.

It’s also nice that Denver’s great lineup is a potential starting lineup option for the 2020-21 season. As Porter continues to grow into his role and those players continue to learn how to play with each other, I think that group could legitimately be excellent. There’s enough shooting on the floor to surround Murray and Jokic as well as enough defense to insulate Porter consistently to make things happen. It may not be how Denver decides to proceed, but it’s a really solid option if it’s the way they want to go.