Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets edge Miami Heat on Paul Millsap’s free throws – The Denver Post

Paul Millsap sat at a July dinner with Denver Nuggets representatives, who outlined all the times their team had failed to finish off a close game last season. That’s why the Nuggets needed Millsap to join their club as a free agent, they stressed.

Millsap nearly blew his first big opportunity to make that type of impact with his new team, missing two free throws in the final minute that would have given Denver the lead over the Miami Heat.

Then the savvy 12-year veteran drew a foul behind the arc and calmly sank three in a row from the stripe, lifting the Nuggets to a wild 95-94 victory Friday night at the Pepsi Center.

“When I missed those first two, I was just hoping to get it back,” Millsap said while leaning back in the chair at his locker. “I was ready to step up and make those three.”

It was a game in which the Heat lived up to its name in the first half. And one in which the Nuggets put together their latest third-quarter outburst, before Miami staged its own furious rally. And one that Denver nearly lost — then won — because of its 14-of-25 performance from the foul line. And one that took a Dion Waiters shot rattling out just before the buzzer for the Nuggets to clinch victory.

But the night ultimately ended with the Nuggets walking off the floor as winners of four of their last five games ahead of Saturday’s key showdown against the Golden State Warriors.

“These are the games we would have lost last year — point-blank,” said coach Michael Malone, referring to Denver’s 5-10 mark in one-possession games last season. “And we didn’t.”

The Nuggets (5-4), who are over .500 for the first time this season, led by nine points when Emmanuel Mudiay hit a fadeaway jumper with 5:24 to play. But then Miami surged, with a 3-pointer by Josh Richardson capping a 13-2 run to regain a 91-89 advantage.

The Heat and Nuggets traded one-point leads, when Waiters answered a Gary Harris shot in the lane with a layup to put Miami back up 93-92 with 30.9 seconds remaining. Then came Millsap’s two missed free throws, a Goran Dragic make from the stripe and Millsap’s game-winning foul shots with 11.8 seconds to play.

The Nuggets overcame a scorching start by the Heat, which made 12 of its first 14 field-goal attempts and shot 64.9 percent before intermission. But the game flipped when Denver outscored Miami 25-13 in the third quarter, cranking up the defensive pressure in holding the Heat to 3-of-18 from the floor.

A Harris technical for arguing with an official after being called for an offensive foul partially sparked a 10-0 Denver run, with a floater by Nikola Jokic (19 points, 14 rebounds) giving the Nuggets their first lead at 65-64. A putback off his own miss by Millsap, who scored 10 of his 27 points in the period, increased that advantage to five points heading into the decisive final quarter.

Millsap’s redemptive free throws marked the latest example of him finding his groove with his new team. Even a 32-year-old All-Star has a learning curve, he’s acknowledged for the past six weeks.He’s had new terminology to decipher and new plays to memorize. He’s needed to learn how to effectively occupy the floor with Jokic, another playmaking big man. He’s needed to adjust to Denver’s altitude.

But a week ago, the Nuggets turned to Millsap down the stretch to finish off a road win against his former team, the Atlanta Hawks. After going 2-for-13 from the field in a loss at Madison Square Garden Monday night, Millsap scored 13 consecutive points in the first quarter and 19 before intermission in Wednesday’s blowout of the Toronto Raptors.

As the seconds dwindled off the clock Friday, Will Barton set a screen to help free up Millsap. Millsap then drew contact from James Johnson behind the arc.

Millsap didn’t feel nervous as he stepped back to the stripe with the game on the line — again. He did not “even try to think,” instead relying on muscle memory and natural ability as the ball left his hand three times.

He sank the first. Then the second. Then the third.

“That’s the importance of having Paul Millsap,” Malone said. “He does not shy away from the moment.”