Nikola Jokic Powers Nuggets' Game 5 Rout of Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2019

DENVER, CO - MAY 7: Paul Millsap #4 of the Denver Nuggets shoots the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers during Game Five of the Western Conference Semi-Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on May 7, 2019 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets are one win away from their first Western Conference Finals in 10 years following Tuesday's 124-98 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of their second-round series.

Denver took home-court advantage back with its win in Game 4 and maintained its momentum by capitalizing at the Pepsi Center and seizing a 3-2 lead.

Nikola Jokic (25 points, 19 rebounds and six assists), Paul Millsap (24 points, eight rebounds and two blocks) and Jamal Murray (18 points, nine assists and five boards) spearheaded a balanced Nuggets attack and were in control throughout.

Damian Lillard (22 points, six rebounds and four assists) did what he could for the Trail Blazers but didn't play in the fourth quarter with his team facing a daunting deficit. CJ McCollum was just 5-of-16 from the field on his way to 12 points.

            

Millsap's Veteran Poise is Exactly What Nuggets Need to Stun the World

The young Nuggets had every right to be tight in the face of immense pressure to start Game 5.

After all, this is a franchise that hasn't been this deep in the playoffs since 2009, well before its core was in the league. Every game is the new biggest one in the careers of Jokic, Gary Harris, Murray, Torrey Craig and Will Barton, among others.

Tuesday's matchup was as close to a must-win as a non-elimination game can be since the Nuggets were a mere 20-21 on the road during the regular season. It is likely asking too much for them to take two games in Portland during a single series, so they needed to win the remaining contests at Pepsi Center.

Millsap sensed the gravity of the moment and came out on fire as a playoff-tested veteran, set the tone and provided a steadying calm for the rest of the team to find its flow.

He poured in 12 points during the first quarter alone and 19 by halftime, carrying the offense on the blocks, from mid-range and even beyond the three-point line. He masterfully played off the attention Jokic drew, finding openings in Portland's defense to create his own looks and skip-pass situations to free others.

Millsap also ensured the frontcourt survived early foul trouble for Jokic and Mason Plumlee by bodying up against Enes Kanter for a block, stripping a driving Al-Farouq Aminu to create a layup on the other end, facilitating to Barton for a three-pointer when the defense collapsed and unleashing a smooth fadeaway jumper when he was matched up one-on-one against Evan Turner.

It was more of the same for the four-time All-Star after he notched a double-double (21 points and 10 boards) in a Game 4 win.

That he is rising to the occasion is no surprise considering this is his 10th postseason appearance. His resume features trips to the Eastern Conference Finals with the Atlanta Hawks and Western Conference Finals with the Utah Jazz. He is not intimidated by the magnitude of the stage, which is the exact type of presence this untested Nuggets team needed to survive the early nerves.

The initial lead Millsap created allowed his teammates to settle in, and Murray eventually went into attack mode by driving to the rim and unleashing threes over Lillard's outstretched hands.

Just for good measure, Millsap connected on a four-point play in the final 15 seconds of the first half after the defense started to collapse on Murray. Then he picked up where he left off with multiple looks at the rim early in the third quarter.

The majority of the headlines entering this series were about Lillard and the Trail Blazers after his 37-foot buzzer-beater sent the Oklahoma City Thunder home in dramatic fashion. It will be much of the same for Denver should it advance to the Western Conference Finals against either the mighty Golden State Warriors as they look for a third straight title or James Harden as he attempts to cement another MVP-caliber season with his first championship.

The unassuming Nuggets have quietly been a contender in the West all season while the others draw more attention, and they're now one win away from earning the right to play for a spot in the NBA Finals.

The pressure is only going to intensify with every passing game, and Denver will need Millsap's battle-tested poise if it wants to shock the world and lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

            

What's Next?

The series returns to Portland for Thursday's Game 6.

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