DENVER — Jamal Murray glided undetected from the right side of the court to the left before making a leaping interception on a San Antonio Spurs long pass like a stealthy cornerback. Gary Harris later flew in from behind and swatted away a Patty Mills layup before landing in the stands, standing and posing for a few seconds.
The Denver Nuggets finally played their best and most complete game of the postseason, and now the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference is on the verge of eliminating the Spurs. The Nuggets, who came into this postseason without much playoff experience, beat the Spurs 108-90 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.
The Nuggets have won two straight and are beginning to look like the regular-season force they were when they won 54 games. Perhaps even worse for the Spurs, the Nuggets look as if they are beginning to see and believe in their playoff potential.
“Just a glimpse of knowing what we can do,” Murray said of what Denver displayed Tuesday night. “We’re having a lot of fun right now. Learning through mistakes, ups and downs, there’s been injuries all season and all that but playoff experience or not, we are having a lot of fun and we’re getting the job done.”
The Nuggets raced to their first first-quarter lead of the series and never looked back. They turned a four-point game into a 15-point lead just before the end of the first half with a 14-3 run. Murray ignited the run with five points, two assists, one rebound, one steal and one block during that span.
Denver then had the Pepsi Center rocking by opening the third quarter with a 16-4 run that pushed San Antonio 23 down with 7:44 left in the third.
Denver coach Michael Malone challenged Murray to be more consistent in this series. Murray was up-and-down in the first three games, and also was outplayed by San Antonio point guard Derrick White, especially in Game 3, when White had a career-high 36 points.
Since then, though, Murray scored 24 points in the Nuggets’ Game 4 win in San Antonio and then followed with 23 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block while making 9-of-16 shots overall in 28 minutes Tuesday.
Meanwhile, White has been held to a total of 20 points and 8-of-19 shooting since Game 3 after Malone switched Harris onto White to start while inserting Torrey Craig into the starting lineup for Will Barton and putting Craig on DeMar DeRozan.
Harris was a two-way nuisance for the Spurs, scoring 13 of his 15 points in the first half to help the Nuggets get the raucous crowd into the game while also playing physical defense on White and DeRozan, who finished with 17 points but shot 6-of-15 from the field.
Though Malone called San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich “the Bobby Fischer” of the NBA chess match between coaches, Popovich tried all he could to stop the bleeding in Game 5 without any success.
Popovich managed to keep his dry sense of humor despite watching his team shoot 20-of-46 inside the paint, several of the missed shots coming on easy layups the Spurs normally make. The 26 missed shots inside are tied for their second most in a game this season, including playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“That was my best Bobby Fischer, tell Mikey that,” Popovich deadpanned after seeing his team fall behind by as much as 30.
What the Spurs have yet to solve has been how to slow down Denver All-Star center Nikola Jokic. Jokic continues to be a nightly triple-double threat, collecting 16 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists in three quarters in Game 5.
Jokic buried two 3-pointers in the final 39.6 seconds of the third quarter that basically served as the 1-2 knockout combination that finished the Spurs. Jokic is now averaging 19.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists in his first playoff series.
“What Nikola is doing in his playoff debut has not happened very often in the history of this game,” Malone said. “… I hope in this playoff crowd, national TV audience, that people are tuning in and watching us and saying, man, this kid Nikola Jokic is for real.”
If the Nuggets can play in Game 6 in San Antonio on Thursday the way they did when they shot 50 percent and smothered the Spurs at times Tuesday night, the NBA will get an opportunity to see what Denver can do in the second round against Damian Lillard and Portland.
“This whole series is so many firsts for all our players,” Malone said of his team’s lack of experience. “First home playoff game. First road playoff game. Now this will be our first opportunity to close out a series. Most of our guys haven’t been in this situation.
“All I told them was this: This will be the hardest game of your career. Closing out an opponent like San Antonio in their home gym is going to be one of the hardest things we’ve ever tried to do.”
Source : ESPN