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Nuggets stress-free ahead of must-win Game 6

The reason the Nuggets have hope of forcing yet another Game 7 is the same reason they’re a dangerous, plucky outfit, even to a title contender.

Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, foreground, takes a shot as Clippers forward Marcus Morris, left, defends during Friday’s Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
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Sometime between Paul Millsap’s personal scoring spree, or Mason Plumlee’s alley-oop jam, or Michael Porter Jr.’s clutch 3-pointer late in Friday’s Game 5, a thought struck Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

“That second half was so fun,” Malone proclaimed Saturday, hours after his team fended off elimination for the fourth time this postseason.

Not that their 3-1 comeback against Utah in the first round wasn’t an incredible, historical ride in and of itself, but Friday’s 16-point comeback against the Clippers to force a Game 6 was different.

It crystallized the ethos of this Nuggets team. It confirmed all the instances of improbable resilience they’d shown this season, from their 7-man win in Salt Lake City, to their road win over the NBA-best Bucks after arriving at the team hotel at an ungodly hour.

And whether their 68-day bubble tour comes to an end in Sunday’s Game 6, or the Nuggets reach yet another Game 7, Malone is convinced the extended road trip has paid dividends. That means new heights for Jamal Murray, new responsibilities for budding star Michael Porter Jr. and new tensions to test themselves.

“I hope that we’re all enjoying this journey that we’re on,” said Malone. “Often times, we always get worried about the destination. And what’s our goal? Our goal is to win a championship. And we all can’t wait for that to happen, at some point in time, whenever that is, this year or in coming years. But for me, I have to remind myself, because I enjoyed last night. I enjoyed seeing our guys being down 16 points and fighting back and winning in the manner in which we did it. So enjoy the journey.”

Malone took immense joy in that it wasn’t just Nikola Jokic or Murray who aided their riveting Game 5 win over the Clippers. Plumlee’s screens freed up Murray’s looks, and Torrey Craig’s hustle set the table for Millsap’s buckets. Monte Morris steadied the second unit, and Jerami Grant knocked down clutch 3-pointers. Gary Harris used up all six of his fouls grappling with the Clippers.

Against a team heavily favored to win the series, and perhaps the title itself, it took everybody pulling in the same direction, which shouldn’t be taken for granted considering the mental toll the bubble has taken on players on every team.

But as indicated by their second-half resolve, the Nuggets haven’t booked their tickets for DIA, or Serbia, just yet. There’s perhaps more fun to be had.

Up 3-2, the Clippers already bet the house with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer. The pressure to win is immediate. The Nuggets, on the other hand, are playing with house money.

“That team we’re playing is a veteran team, who’s taken all their chips and put it in the middle of the table and said, ‘We’re all in,’” Malone said. “We haven’t done that. We’re still a young team, building, growing, adding and finding out more and more about our players.”

The reason the Nuggets have hope of forcing yet another Game 7 is the same reason they’re a dangerous, plucky outfit, maybe even to a title contender.

“We have nothing to lose,” Malone said. “Everybody’s written us off.”

And before you wonder whether that’s Malone spin, or a weak attempt at authoring a narrative, consider Jokic’s opinion. Their superstar center doesn’t have the inclination at calling it any other way than how he sees it. Somehow, the naturally laidback All-Star might get even more comfortable facing elimination.

“How do we do that?” he pondered for a second. “I think the locker room is a little bit, kind of, looser, funnier, if I can say that, when we are in elimination games. The guys are, ‘We’re just going to go there and have fun.’ It’s a little bit relaxed. We don’t have that much pressure.”

When that’s the attitude, it’s no wonder they’ve gone 5-1 in elimination games over the past two years. What’s there to stress about if there’s nothing to lose? Jokic and his teammates have flipped the equation, turning all the pressure onto the Clippers heading into Sunday’s affair.

If their free and easy style translates to more engrossing comebacks, the Nuggets may yet again find themselves in another Game 7. And even if they don’t, the progress they’ve made was well worth the price of admission.

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