DENVER – Paul Millsap is the sage veteran among the youthful Denver Nuggets, but even he had to admit he was sick of seeing the Portland Trail Blazers.
“I’m sure they feel that way, too,” Millsap said.
And that was after five games of this seven-game Western Conference semifinal series that is tied at 3-3. The sentiment hasn’t changed heading into Sunday’s Game 7 in Denver.
The winner will advance to the conference finals to play the two-time reigning champion Golden State Warriors. Game 1 of that series will be Tuesday night in Oakland, Calif.
The fatigue of Denver and Portland playing each other 10 times in the regular season and playoffs came to a head in the Trail Blazers’ 119-108 win on Thursday. Things got chippy midway through the fourth quarter when Portland center Zach Collins fell at the feet of Nuggets guard Will Barton.
Blazers guard Seth Curry pushed Barton away from Collins and Barton responded by putting a finger in Curry’s face. Things calmed down but the animosity remains for Game 7.
“He waited for a few people to get in between us, and when a few people were in between us, he put his finger in my eye,” Curry said after the game. “I can’t allow dudes to put their fingers in my eye. That’s real sassy. They got some sassy dudes over there. Front-runners.”
The wear of battling for six games, including a four-overtime marathon in Game 3, was obvious late Thursday. When Portland guard CJ McCollum hit a 3-pointer late to seal the win, his teammate, Evan Turner turned and gave the Denver bench the middle finger.
Barton shrugged off the altercation and the emotions of the series.
“I’m not going to try to justify that as a way for us to play hard or wake us up,” Barton said Thursday night. “I just feel like it’s being competitive, it’s playoff basketball, some things are going to happen. If we’re all out there just being friendly, it ain’t gonna look like nobody’s trying to win, huh?”
Players likely will keep their tempers in check for Sunday’s elimination game, with the focus being on stopping each other’s stars. Portland’s starting backcourt of Damian Lillard and McCollum were big in Game 6, scoring 32 and 30 points, respectively. Rodney Hood, the hero of the 140-137 Game 3 win, had 25 off the bench on Thursday.
But the Trail Blazers only got 32 points from the rest of their lineup and might need someone to step up Sunday. A bigger concern for Portland is trying to stop Denver center Nikola Jokic. The Blazers were able to bottle him up in a Game 2 win but Jokic is averaging 26.8 points, 14 rebounds and 8.7 assists in the series with two triple-doubles.
Even if Portland can contain Jokic, Denver has gotten scoring from others. Jamal Murray is scoring 24.7 points a game and Millsap is averaging 18.7 points and nine rebounds in the series.
The Nuggets, despite having the youngest roster in the playoffs, have more Game 7 experience than the Blazers. They beat the San Antonio Spurs in a Game 7 in the first round while Portland’s core group has not been in a winner-take-all matchup.
Emotions, familiarity and animosity might negate that lack of experience Sunday. The prize is a date with the Warriors and a chance to go to the NBA Finals.
“Somebody’s got to go home, somebody’s got to go to Cabo,” McCollum said.
–Field Level Media