Nuggets get their 'must-win'
With my life on the line, I want Jamal Murray at the line.
The free-throw line, that is — at least off of what I saw Sunday at Moda Center.
Denver's point guard — 21 years old, in his second NBA season out of Kentucky — put his ice-water veins to the ultimate test and passed with flying colors in the Nuggets' 116-112 victory over the Trail Blazers.
Eleven times Murray toed the charity stripe Sunday. Eleven times the ball went through the basket.
Six of his free throws came in the final 13.2 seconds, with noise richocheting off the arena walls and partisans in the sellout crowd of 20,146 screaming at him and the weight of a franchise's chances to advance to the next round of the playoffs in the balance.
Swish, swish, swish, swish, swish and swish.
And suddenly, the Western Conference semifinal series was tied at 2-2 heading into Game 5, 7:30 p.m. PT Tuesday at Pepsi Center.
"Now it's a three-game series," coach Terry Stotts said after his Blazers failed to gain the win that would have put them up 3-1 in the series. "I'd have loved a sweep. That didn't happen. It's 2-2, and we move on."
Denver center Nikola Jokic hammered out his second triple-double of the series — and fourth of the postseason — with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists. But as coach Mike Malone phrased it, Murray was the Nuggets' "centerpiece" with 34 points, his second straight 30-point performance.
"Jamal was phenomenal," Malone said. "He has a tremendous amount of grit and toughness. This was our 11th playoff game, and in our wins, Jamal's stats are off the charts. He has been a complete stud."
With the Blazers trailing and having to foul in the game's waning seconds, the ball wound up in Murray's hands three times. Three times the Blazers had to foul him. He wasn't about to miss at the line even once.
"I don't think it's the first time," said Murray, an .846 foul shooter in the regular season who is 18 for 18 at the line in the series and 37 for 42 in the postseason. "Free throws are my thing. My dad (Roger Murray) and I do a lot of training in free throws. Blindfolded. He'll be talking to me like a crowd does, put pressure on me.
"I take 1,000 free throws in practice to make one or two. Today, it ended up being six."
Does he make them blindfolded?
"Yes, sir," Murray said.
As he met with the media before the game, Malone labeled it a "must-win."
"All of our guys understand the urgency that this game is going to need," he said. "We have to win, and our guys understand that. There are no moral victories today."
Portland had the best of the early going, leading by nine points in the second quarter and 63-57 at halftime. The Nuggets turned it around in the third quarter, outscoring the punchless Blazers 27-14. Portland was 5 for 18 from the field, and 0 for 7 from 3-point range, with seven turnovers in its worst 12 minutes of the postseason so far.
"Bad third quarter, and that made the difference," Stotts said. "We didn't have a lot of pop. We were a little flat, and that gave them some momentum. We went into the locker room at halftime with momentum, and we gave it away."
CJ McCollum scored 29 points and Damian Lillard had 28 for Portland, but Lillard had a difficult time getting untracked. He was 4 for 14 from the field through three quarters and, though he made 5 of 8 shots in the final period, he finished with 9-for-22 shooting, including 2 for 7 on 3-point attempts. And he missed three free throws, two in the fourth quarter with the game still up for grabs.
Lillard is averaging 27.3 points in the series, but he is shooting .429 from the field and has made only 9 of 35 3-point attempts. The Nuggets are primarily using Torrey Craig and Gary Harris to defend him, and blitzing every pick-and-roll play from the 7-foot Jokic, who is a very savvy help defender, giving up the middle to get a hand up on Lillard on the perimeter.
"They're trying to show bodies and make me play in a crowd, find the open man, and that's what I'm trying to do," said Lillard, who averaged 33.0 points in the Oklahoma City series. "Try to see where the help is coming from, make that play and still find a way to be aggressive, to look for shots. I don't want to let them turn me into a passive player."
"We have Torrey, Gary, Malik (Beasley) — guys who come in and play great defense," Murray said. (Lillard) is a hell of a player, (but) he might have some struggling shooting nights because of those guys. They rotate, fresh legs guard him every time and run him down. But he's still doing what he's doing. It's not like he's not putting up bad numbers."
"Brother, he scored 30 points," said Jokic, sitting next to Murray as they met with the media.
"I give our coaching staff a lot of credit for the preparation we put into defending Lillard, in learning all the things from the OKC series — their pick-up points, the bigs not being up," Malone said. "He had a lot of open space in that series. We wanted to be a little bit better. We didn't want him getting 33 a night.
"But this is a carryover from our four regular-season meetings. We did a good job of defending him."
Indeed, Lillard averaged 21.3 points on .371 shooting — 10 for 35 from the 3-point line — against the Nuggets in the regular season. Denver is defending him in a similar way to the scheme New Orleans used in the playoffs a year ago.
"When you see a defense come at you that aggressively, you identify what they're trying to do and try make them pay for it," said Lillard, who had seven assists in his 36 minutes. "Try to attack them with the pass, maybe to the weak side or to wherever help is coming from. That way, maybe they go away from it or it softens up ... and then get more aggressive scoring the ball."
The Blazers were hoping there would be a hangover on the Denver side from Portland's 140-137 four-overtime triumph on Friday, in which Jokic played 65 minutes and Murray 56. No such luck.
"It's no quitting," Jokic said. "We have competitive guys who don't want to lose. I think we don't want to lose more than we like to win, which is weird.
"We don't want to have an excuse to lose because we were tired. We went out there and gave 100 percent. We said if we win today, last game doesn't matter that much."
The Nuggets also trailed 2-1 in the first round against San Antonio, only to win Game 4 and go on to claim the first-round series in seven games.
"The confidence of doing the same thing against San Antonio helped us," Malone said. "Our guys stepped up. We never frayed. We stayed together. I can't speak enough about the resiliency and toughness of our team."
It was the first loss in five home playoff games for the Blazers, who were 32-9 at Moda Center during the regular season and are 36-10 overall at home. Now the Nuggets have wrested back home court advantage, with Game 5 and a potential Game 7 at Pepsi Center.
"It happens," Lillard said. "In the playoffs, it's going to be competitive. It's not always going to go your way. The good thing is, we won (Game 2) on their court. We're in a good space — 2-2. We know we're capable of winning on their floor. That's what we have to go get done.
"Two good teams trying to advance, that's all it is. We have an even series. Got to win one on their court, either way. We'll try to make that happen Tuesday."
For the Blazers, part of the game plan will be to keep the ball out of Murray's hands — especially late in the game, with the game on the line. That's when he'll swish 'er, sweet.
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