The Nuggets have a special player in Jamal Murray.
Three nights after clanking a potential game-winner, Murray embraced the clutch moments yet again — and this time he came through.
Murray hit step-backs, fadeaways, floaters and white-knuckle free throws, carrying the Nuggets to a thrilling 114-105 victory against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.
He hit back-to-back 3-pointers with less than three minutes remaining to seal the raucous win and send the series back to San Antonio tied 1-1. Game 3 is Thursday night.
Unencumbered by his late Game 1 miss that could have won that contest, Murray scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, the difficulty level of each bucket seemingly ratcheting up as the noise grew louder.
After the buzzer, teammates embraced him at center court knowing full well the 22-year-old had probably saved their season.
Gary Harris poured in 23 points, including three clutch 3-pointers while Denver’s all-star center, Nikola Jokic, followed up his Game 1 triple-double with another incredible line. Jokic finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, including a clutch fourth-quarter jumper as the Spurs unraveled.
Amid all the chaos of the comeback, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich drew a technical foul, which only stoked the crowd even further.
The Nuggets didn’t contain LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan as well as they did in Game 1 — the two combining for 55 points — but Murray’s heroics were more than enough.
With the Nuggets again struggling from outside, San Antonio methodically built its lead to 19 points with 4:28 remaining in the third. But a resolve, built on defensive tenacity, kicked in from a Nuggets team that had the best home-court advantage in the NBA during the regular season.
Jokic, Harris and Malik Beasley all buried momentum-swinging 3-pointers and the Nuggets took a buzz saw to San Antonio’s cushion. In a three-minute spurt, capped off by Beasley’s transition triple, Denver had the deficit to just six points with their season potentially on the line.
Credit the Spurs, who were hardly content with just stealing home-court advantage, for their aggressive approach in Game 2.
“One game win in Denver doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said at Tuesday’s shootaround. “We need to have that same nasty hungriness that we had in Game 1.”
San Antonio guard Bryn Forbes exuded similar confidence, saying the Spurs wanted to “win out,” when he was asked about their mind-set.
After a dispiriting Game 1, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he needed to remind himself that six of his nine players used were making their postseason debut. The mental aspect of this series was every bit as important as the execution.
“Being positive, uplifting guys, staying together, grabbing guys and having one-on-one conversations because I know this, if we go on the court tonight with the mind-set of ‘We can’t lose Game 2’ and we play tight and we play nervous, we’ll have no chance to win,” Malone said. “Our only chance of having success tonight is to go out there and play and play free, play for each other and that’s when we’re at our best.”
Malone also knew that in order to temper the anxiety, he would need a steadier performance from Murray, one of his primary ballhandlers, in Game 2.
“The dialogue (with him) is, ‘go out there, play with pace,’ ” Malone said. “Our pace is not just one player; it’s all five on the floor. He has to dictate that pace. He’s got to get us up, into our offense quicker. And then I want him to be a playmaker.”
Malone said that during a review of Game 1, Murray admitted to him he was too excited.
“He told me when we watched film, ‘I was just so excited, the place was going crazy,’ and he wanted to make it go crazier,” Malone said. “I said ‘Let’s just make the best play and keep them crazy. We don’t have to go off the reservation.’ ”
It appeared the same problem plagued Murray over the first two quarters.
The Nuggets were teetering on the brink of disaster before Malone injected life into them with a second-quarter technical foul. Down 41-23, the Nuggets reeled off an 11-0 run fueled by Jokic’s individual dominance and a clutch 3-pointer from Harris.
But DeRozan and Derrick White connected on 24 points in the second quarter alone to stymie the run and enter halftime up 59-49. Similar to Game 1, Will Barton and Murray struggled mightily on their looks and managed just 1-of-15 from the field. Millsap had 15 points, his steady production keeping it close.
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