Paul Millsap stepped to the free throw line with 11.8 seconds left, the game on the line and two misses just seconds earlier at the charity stripe to put out of his mind.
“I was just trying to get as far away from myself as possible,” Millsap said. “No dropping my head, staying confident, stepping up and going through the routine. I shoot free throws every day.”
Free throw one…. Good.
Free throw two…. Good.
Free throw three…. Good.
The Pepsi Center erupted. The Nuggets were up, 95-94, but there was still work to do on the defensive end. Miami had 11.8 seconds to answer with a game-winning shot. But Dion Waiters 23-footer spun around the rim and out, and time expired on the Nuggets’ win on Saturday night – their fourth in the last five games. And with the victory, the Nuggets are over .500 (5-4) for the first time this season.
Where were Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s nerves when Millsap stepped to the line for the game-winning free throws?
“I believed in him,” Malone said. “I’m not just saying that. I really did think he was going to make it. That guy goes 2-of-13 in New York, comes back and scores 19 points in the first half against Toronto. He misses two big free throws; he wants that pressure. That’s the importance of having Paul Millsap. He does not shy away from the moment.”
And yet, Millsap had to calm himself and coolly knock down the shots.
“I think after you make that first one, a little pressure is off of you,” Millsap said. “Then you make the second one…”
He paused for a second.
“I mean, the pressure is still there,” he admitted. “We’re down two points. We’re down two and you make three, the team goes up one. So, luckily I was able to make them.”
It was a victory the Nuggets desperately wanted to have going into Saturday night’s second of this home-and-home back-to-back against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. And it was powered by two familiar themes: A solid third quarter and stifling defense.
Whatever Malone is telling his team at halftime of late, he’s going to want to bottle it up and dish it out all season long. But revealing it? No can do, he said with a grin.
“It’s NC-17,” Malone said.
Early this season, the third quarter has become the Nuggets quarter.
It’s the period in which they’ve done a ton of heavy-lifting, and Saturday night was no different. The Nuggets have outscored opponents 268-189 in the third this season; that’s an average score of 29.7-21.
In Brooklyn, it helped the Nuggets put away the Nets. In New York, it helped the Nuggets rally from 23 points down against the Knicks. On Saturday, the Nuggets outscored Miami 26-13, which erased a seven-point halftime deficit and put them in position to win.
“I think it’s just a thing where everybody just thinks in their head ‘we need to pick it up,’ and just keep fighting through whatever is going on,” Wilson Chandler said.
Miami has one overarching objective in its ‘Spray and Pay’ offense – get the ball into the paint, draw defenders and kick out to 3-point shooters. In the first half, the Heat nearly worked the system to perfection, knocking down 10 3-pointers in 20 attempts as the Nuggets defense scrambled to get out to open shooters.
But that all changed in the second half.
The first order of business was sticking tight to shooters. Check. Miami perimeter players had little-to-no space to work with. Second, was digging down and playing a more solid brand of one-on-one defense, keeping ball-handlers out of the lane so multiple rotations wouldn’t be necessary. Check. And with defense shutting Miami down, the Nuggets offense got rolling.
Millsap scored 10 of his season-high 27 points in the period. The Nuggets forced six turnovers and converted them into eight points. They found a groove, but Miami did not wilt, pushing the game into a nailbiter in the end.
But the Nuggets won, and Nikola Jokić had another big outing, finishing with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four steals. Emmanuel Mudiay continued his stellar play off the bench with 12 points, four assists and three rebounds.
“And we won another game where we didn’t score 100 points,” Malone said. “Which speaks to defense and timely execution down the stretch.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.