DENVER — Nikola Jokic scored 25 points and tied a team playoff high with 19 rebounds, and Paul Millsap injected some experience into a series dominated by youth, sparking the Nuggets’ 124-98 blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night that gave Denver a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Nuggets can secure their first trip to the Western Conference Finals in a decade with a win in Game 6 on Thursday night in Portland.
Millsap scored 19 of his 24 points in the first half of the first lopsided game in a series that was so evenly matched coming in that Denver held a cumulative scoring advantage of 464-462.
“Thirteen-year vet, a lot of games under his belt and he is stepping up when he need him to step up,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “I think the best thing about Paul Millsap: He’s true to himself; he never tries to be something he’s not. And he’s not a rah-rah guy. He’s not a guy that’s going to be screaming and yelling.
“But I think his calm nature, his calm nature, has an effect on our group. A young team going through all this for the first time and when you can look to a four-time All-Star with 90 playoff games under his belt, that’s reassuring. He is kind of the calm for our team and I think that has a tremendous impact for all of our young players.”
The Nuggets never trailed and stretched a six-point lead after one quarter to 18 at the half and 28 heading into the fourth quarter. They led by as many as 31 before a parade of backups gave the starters some much-needed breathers.
Damian Lillard led Portland with 22 points but again struggled from the arc, going 2 of 9 on 3-pointers.
Coming off a resounding Game 4 win that followed that epic quadruple-overtime loss, the Nuggets were focused and efficient just as Malone promised when he said Denver wouldn’t dare let up and exhale at home after reclaiming the home-court advantage.
Millsap came out hot, scoring a dozen points in the first quarter. Just before halftime, he gathered a behind-the-back pass from Jamal Murray (18 points) and swished a 3-pointer while being knocked to the floor by Rodney Hood.
His subsequent free throw gave him a four-point play and 19 first-half points as the Nuggets took a 20-point lead. Lillard, who had 18 points at the break, scored an uncontested basket just before the end of the half to pull the Trail Blazers to 65-47 heading into the locker room.
Whatever adjustments Blazers coach Terry Stotts tried to make at the half didn’t take as the Nuggets outscored Portland 28-18 in the third quarter, and before long, the Blazers were thinking more about salvaging Game 6 and hoping to regroup for a return trip to Denver in hopes of a different outcome.
“We’ve got two must-wins ahead of us,” Stotts said.