DENVER — The Denver Nuggets, the second seed in the Western Conference, were down by 16 points to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night and about 18 minutes away from falling into a disastrous 0-2 hole in the series.
Denver coach Mike Malone called for timeout with 5:45 remaining in the third quarter with his team trailing 73-57 and conjured up the LA Clippers pulling off their big comeback win against the Golden State Warriors to motivate his team.
“I could see on some guys’ faces which way is this game going to go?” Malone said. “… I reminded them what the Clippers did [Monday] night and how much basketball is left. It’s only going to happen though if we believe, we commit, we fight and we attack, and the guys took it to heart — and we closed the game out on a 57-32 run from that point on.”
The Nuggets trailed by as much as 19 in the third, but with Jamal Murray erupting for 21 of his 24 points in an explosive fourth quarter, the Nuggets completed a potentially season-saving comeback. They notched their first playoff win of the postseason to even the best-of-seven series at 1-1 with a 114-105 victory over the Spurs.
Though the Nuggets didn’t overcome a 31-point deficit like the Clippers did a night earlier in a 135-131 victory to shock the defending champs, their 19-point rally starting at the 4:28 mark in the third quarter was tied for the third-largest blown lead by the Spurs under coach Gregg Popovich in the playoffs.
“We gave up  points in the fourth quarter, end of story,” Popovich said after the loss. “… Paul [Millsap] and Jamal had a lot to do with that, obviously. They both hurt us badly, and we didn’t have any answers for either one of them.”
With much of the Nuggets team experiencing the postseason for the first time, Denver came out and fell behind by 19 in the second quarter. Millsap, one of the few Nuggets with playoff experience, scored 15 points in the first half and kept Denver from falling behind by much more.
Murray and Will Barton couldn’t get a shot to fall in the first three quarters, combining to go 1-for-18 during that span.
After shooting 8-for-23 and missing all six of his 3-point attempts in Game 1, Murray remained an hour after that contest to get shots up on the team’s practice court late into night on Saturday following Denver’s 101-96 loss. In the final 57.7 seconds of Game 1, Murray missed a 3-pointer, misfired on an open 18-footer that would have put the Nuggets ahead and turned the ball over.
“Just mental bounce back,” Murray said of what the two days between games were like for him emotionally. “Obviously wasn’t happy with myself, frustrated. The way I played … I rushed everything. I was excited. I let the crowd, the amazing energy, get to me.
“I wanted to go into Game 2 relaxed.”
Murray tried to set off the Pepsi Center at the start of Game 2 but missed what would have been a thunderous dunk early. At halftime, Malone told Murray to calm down and to breathe.
“He was so frustrated at halftime, not making shots, shots that he’s made his whole career,” Malone said. “I just grabbed him and told him take a deep breath. Every shot right now is like the end of the world.”
Meanwhile, Murray’s point guard counterpart, Derrick White, was following up his breakout Game 1 performance by making 7 of 10 shots on Tuesday and scoring all 17 of his points for the Spurs in the first three quarters.
Gary Harris scored 14 of his 23 points in the third to keep the Nuggets within striking distance entering the fourth. Murray, who had missed all eight of his shots and had only three points after three quarters, walked onto the floor at the start of the fourth and looked at the sold-out crowd of 19,520.
Murray said seeing all the fans waving their playoff towels reminded him of his childhood dream of playing in front of a sold-out playoff crowd.
Then Murray caught fire. He hit eight straight shots coming in all kinds of variety — pullups, fadeaways, 3-pointers. Then in a 19-second span, Murray delivered a one-two punch that knocked the Spurs out. He hit a fadeaway 3-pointer. And after Spurs forward Rudy Gay lost the ball, Murray came down and drilled a pull-up 3 in front of Popovich and the Spurs’ bench to give the Nuggets a 110-101 lead with 2:12 remaining as the Pepsi Center erupted.
Murray pumped his fist and pulled out his trademark “Blue Arrow” celebration by the scorer’s table as the playoff towels were waving everywhere.
“Pretty perfect,” Murray said about that moment. “Just the way I imagined it. When I get into the zone, everybody knows I get in a zone. … I go crazy. I have a lot of fun. I love the game with a passion. I was hot, and I decided to pull up.”
The series is tied 1-1, and now the young Nuggets go to San Antonio looking to steal home-court advantage back.
“He needs this,” Malone said when asked if there was any consideration to benching Murray in the fourth because he was cold. “… I didn’t foresee the fourth quarter he was going to have, but I knew in my heart he needed to get these minutes, he needed to be out there, I needed to show him that I believed in him.”
“First of many for Jamal Murray,” Malone added of the point guard’s playoff performance. “I have no doubt.”