DENVER — Paul Millsap scored inside while being fouled, then did something he doesn’t do very often.
The calm and often emotionless veteran flexed both of his muscles.
After four games of both teams playing virtually even basketball across the board, the Denver Nuggets followed Millsap’s lead and muscled their way past the Portland Trail Blazers, 124-98, to inch within a victory of a Western Conference finals appearance.
Millsap, the steady 13-year veteran, set the tone early as he has done much of this conference semifinals series. Millsap hit 7 of his first 10 shots and scored 19 of his 24 points in the first half.
“He was huge,” Denver center Nikola Jokic said. “He set everything — physicality, pace, offensively, defensively, he was really huge.
“He’s actually playing really good these playoffs,” Jokic added after a long pause. “Maybe he turned on the playoff mode.”
When he wasn’t abusing Portland’s defense on the low block with an array of moves and runners, Millsap hurt Portland from outside, burying a 3-pointer while being fouled for a rare four-point play that pushed the Denver lead to 20 just before the end of the first half. The largest lead by either team prior to Game 5 was 17, by Portland in the third quarter of a Game 2 that was decided by a mere seven points.
“They like that action with Jamal Murray and Jokic a lot,” Portland point guard Damian Lillard said of Millsap. “They’re playing out of the corners with Will [Barton], and Gary Harris and [Malik] Beasley … then when all else fails you’ve got to guard Millsap. They’ll throw him on the block and he’s a handful for guys to guard because he’s in the paint, face-up jumpers, he’s making 3’s. In transition you got to find him and then he’s a monster on the glass.”
Indeed, Millsap has gone into postseason beast mode, averaging 19 points, 9.6 rebounds and 54.5 percent shooting from the field against the Trail Blazers in this round. In Game 5, Portland tried to put center Enes Kanter on Millsap early. Kanter, a devout Muslim, is fasting from sunrise to sunset each day for the next month in observance of Ramadan. The Nuggets adjusted and Millsap went 5-for-5 when guarded by Kanter in the first half.
At times in Games 3 and 4, Portland tried to put Kanter on Millsap to avoid having Kanter stuck on Murray off a Jokic-Murray pick-and-roll late in games.
“They tried a few things, to switch a few things up,” Millsap said. “We read them pretty quickly but most importantly guys were locked in today.”
“I know they tried to be a little bit more physical with me these last two games against my counters,” Millsap added. “For me, once they take something away and I can’t bully them down there, get to my counters and just trust it.
Portland not only had no answer for Millsap — there has been no stopping Jokic, either. After back-to-back triple-doubles, Jokic continued his postseason surge with a near 20-20. The Serbian All-Star had 25 points, 19 rebounds and six assists before fouling out in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.
Denver ultimately outscored Portland 66-44 in the paint; the scoring margin in the paint never exceeded eight points in either of the previous four games of the series.
Jokic nearly lost his cool after taking a flagrant foul 1 shove from Meyers Leonard on a drive to the basket with the Nuggets up 20 with eight minutes remaining. Jokic, though, has kept his composure this entire postseason after being ejected three times during the regular season. He credits Millsap’s calm demeanor.
“How I look at him, he doesn’t have emotions,” Jokic explained. “When things are not going good, he gets us together… he keeps talking with us… He helps me a lot just watching him and just to learn from him to see how he is dealing with situations.”
Millsap, who played in his 99th career postseason game, was the man the young Nuggets turned to on the eve of the playoffs to ask for advice on what they were about to experience.
And now many of these young Nuggets playing in their first postseason will look to Millsap again for guidance on how to close out a team on the road for the first time in the playoffs.
The Nuggets failed to clinch the series in Game 6 in the first round, losing in San Antonio before needing to win Game 7 at home.
“It showed us what not to do,” Millsap said of the Game 6 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. “That being a lot of guy’s [first] Game 6 and going into an environment like that, shocking for a lot of guys. We’ll be ready.”