With the Denver Nuggets down 15 heading to the locker room at halftime and their season on the line in Game 6, coach Mike Malone knew he had a big speech ahead of him. And, apparently, he delivered.
“This one was my best one ever,” he said jokingly. “It was my best one ever.”
What Malone did talk about, though, was that the Nuggets had been in that situation before. And for a second straight game, they rallied from a double-digit deficit — this time, 19 points — to beat the LA Clippers, 111-98, forcing a Game 7 on Tuesday.
“That’s the nature of our team,” guard Jamal Murray said. “We can have a bad half and we can come back just as quick.”
Denver did it with a dominant second half, the score almost looking like a typo: Nuggets 64, Clippers 35.
“We weren’t down on ourselves,” Malone said. “We knew what it was going to take to get out of that hole.
“I am running out of adjectives, superlatives, whatever you want to call it, to speak on our team. Because that is a tough, resilient group of you know what. I love our team.”
The Nuggets have found a comfort zone being backed up against elimination, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in their opening round against the Jazz, and now pushing the Clippers to a Game 7 after falling behind 3-1. They’re also used to Game 7s. Dating back to last postseason, the Nuggets have now played in four straight series that have gone all the way to seven games — the first time that has ever happened in NBA history. And this postseason, the Nuggets are now 5-0 when facing elimination.
“I think what it comes down to is an inner belief, an inner confidence,” Malone said. “We started off training camp back in September in Colorado Springs talking about winning a championship. And we still have those same goals. We’ve never lost sight of that. Four months during the hiatus, coming back into the bubble, trying to get healthy — we’ve always felt that we were good enough. No one else does. But we don’t care. We don’t listen to the noise. We’ve always had this internal belief in ourselves and our collective group that we’re good enough to win a championship.”
It was a strikingly similar situation to Game 5 where the Clippers held a 16-point lead on the Nuggets, only to watch it slip away as Murray and Nikola Jokic took over. The duo combined for 65 points on Sunday, with Murray’s tough play serving as inspiration and Jokic hitting ridiculous slow-motion, one-legged fadeaway daggers down the stretch. In the two comeback wins, Murray and Jokic have combined for almost as many second-half points (82) as the entire Clippers (84).
“Nikola is a guy that never gets rattled. He never looks desperate,” Malone said. “There’s no, ‘OK, he looks like he’s losing his poise’ and now everybody else does. He’s just a picture of calmness, of steadiness, and then he puts the team on his back and makes some of the plays he makes.”
A turning point came in the third quarter after Paul George blocked a layup at the rim, landing on Murray and leaving the Denver guard writhing in pain on the ground. George hit a 3 on the other end. That exchange gave the Clippers their largest lead of 19. From that point on, the Nuggets outscored the Clippers 28-11 to close the third, putting them back in the game.
“It hurt, it hurt a lot. I was going to come out,” Murray said. “But not in Game 6. Not in an elimination game. Not when my team needed me. And they had my back. Everybody’s talking about me, but I didn’t do nothing. Everybody came in and did their job and more.”
With Murray battling through pain, the Nuggets looked to Jokic to close. And the Serbian big man delivered, scoring 34 points on 13-of-22 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3. It didn’t matter who the Clippers threw at him; Jokic got what he wanted.
“He’s hitting one-leg step-backs, fading away off one leg with a hand in his face consecutive times, so I’d say he’s the best player in the world [tonight],” Murray said of Jokic. “It was a team effort, but Joker definitely carried us throughout the game.”
Malone said after the Nuggets lost Game 4 to fall into the 3-1 hole that the focus would be the same it was against the Jazz: Win the next game. The Nuggets pride themselves on toughness and resilience, and despite the challenge of winning three straight against the favored Clippers, Malone liked their chances.
And even with the double-digit hole they were in on Sunday, the Nuggets never lost belief.
“I don’t know how we did it, that’s an amazing team,” Jokic said. “They are really talented, well coached. They’re really scary.”
As the series turns to a winner-take-all Game 7, the Clippers are faced with a possible collapse that would haunt the franchise. They’ve been here before, too, but on the other side of it: They are 0-7 all-time in games with a chance to clinch a berth in the conference finals.
“We don’t have pressure,” Jokic said. “I think the whole pressure is on them.”