Before his team's Tuesday night matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, reserve Denver Nuggets point guard Andre Miller apparently decided the time was right to fire up his teammates a bit. The Nuggets were on the back end of a back-to-back, following a hard-fought, controversial overtime win over the Chicago Bulls on Monday — a game that apparently led two broadcasters to shoot the fair one — and were about to face a team that had handled them by 20 in a similar scheduling situation two months ago.
Faced with the prospect of overcoming Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the 50-win Thunder on tired legs to extend the Nuggets' winning streak to 13 games, the normally soft-spoken veteran point guard spoke up in the locker room ... and his message was heard, according to the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman:
"One amazing speech — guys were just amped up, ready to play," Denver forward Kenneth Faried said [...] "He said it doesn't matter that we're coming off a back-to-back, it doesn't matter that we went to overtime — we're going to play this game hard and with pride. We don't have any excuses. Andre Miller is a guy who doesn't really say much, but when he talks, everybody listens, nobody's playing around.
"Everybody locks in."
And in the final quarter, with Denver leading and the outcome in the balance, nobody locked in harder than Miller himself. On his 37th birthday, the cagey triggerman produced a point-guard master class in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points on 4 for 7 shooting from the floor and 5 for 6 from the foul line, grabbing six rebounds and dishing three assists with zero turnovers in nine-plus minutes of playing time. He kept the Thunder at arm's length, locking down an incredibly impressive 114-104 road win that pushed the Nuggets' streak to a franchise-record 13 games, earned Denver a victory in the season series over the second-seeded Thunder and served the basketball world notice that this Nuggets team might be something significantly scarier than just a regular-season rabbit.
So how'd he do it? By doing a little bit of everything a point guard should, naturally. Let's go to the blow-by-blow:
12:00: Up 89-82, Miller dribbles up-court and enters to Corey Brewer on the right side, then cuts through to the mid-right-post, defended by Thunder reserve guard Reggie Jackson. Brewer gives it back, then cuts around Miller toward the baseline, headed to the far corner, giving Miller a post-up option on Jackson. (On a Nuggets team all but devoid of post-up threats, Miller's by far their best back-to-the-basket option down low.)
After a kickout to Andre Iguodala and a re-post, Miller briefly backs Jackson down, then sharply cuts toward the middle, where he finds teammate Wilson Chandler, who has just made a smart backdoor cut into the paint behind ball-watching OKC defender Kevin Martin. Miller dumps off, Chandler collects and finishes a layup, and Denver's up nine.
11:13: After a Kevin Durant runner, Miller calmly dribbles left around a JaVale McGee screen at the left elbow, which Jackson navigates, following Miller to the left block. Miller backs the Boston College product down, biding his time as a ball-watching Derek Fisher completely loses Brewer, who has moved from the right corner up to the right wing and is making a sharp V-cut directly down the middle of the paint. Miller makes an easy pass to a wide-open cutter, who finishes, restoring the lead to nine.
(SB Nation's Mike Prada highlighted this play earlier Wednesday, and has much, much more on the Nuggets' ability to create space in half-court sets with sharp off-ball cuts and unconventional player positioning. It's really interesting stuff.)
10:39: After a missed Fisher 3-pointer, Miller gets another screen, this time at the right elbow, and heads right around it. Again, Jackson fights over it and follows Miller, working hard to keep the veteran triggerman in front of him.
Brewer cuts from the left wing to the left corner behind an Iguodala back-screen to lose another ball-watching OKC defender; this time, it's Martin (again), who has sunk way too far down into the paint to help on a potential Miller drive to be able to keep track of his assignment. Miller makes the skip pass to Brewer in the corner for an open baseline jumper, but it clangs off. Alas.
10:12: After rebounding a short miss by Martin, Miller again dribbles up top against the defense of Jackson. Chandler and McGee are stationed just below free-throw line extended on the left and right sides of the lane, respectively. On the left, Iguodala begins an action representing that he's cutting around a Chandler screen to come to the left elbow for a curl and catch; Martin overplays the action, leaving the backdoor wide open for the NBA's best alley-oop thrower to loft a lob. Tic-tac-toe, and the lead's 11.
9:12: Following a Durant layup in transition, Miller goes right around a barely-there Chandler brush screen, resulting in a switch that puts him one-on-one with KD in the right corner. McGee comes down from the right elbow to back-screen Durant, which the reigning scoring champ anticipates and contacts early with the intent of fighting around it to stay on top of Miller as he headed back toward the top of the key ... except that Miller just went away from it, taking a dribble back toward the baseline for a midrange jumper. Splash, 97-86.
8:41: With the lead now 97-88, Miller brings it up against Fisher and dribbles left around a high screen by Kenneth Faried. The action draws a hard hedge by savvy defender Nick Collison; Faried's hard dive draws Collison back toward the rim, but the initial action has been stymied. Still, there's plenty of time on the clock, and Miller still thinks he can carve up Fisher six ways to Sunday, so the birthday boy dribbles patiently.
He backs up and dribbles right to the top of the key; Faried comes back up for another screen, but the offer's rejected, and Faried cuts back to the basket, bringing Collison with him and opening up some daylight for Miller to drive. He beats Fisher off the bounce, motors past a weak dig-down by Durant at the left elbow and gets close enough to loft a floater before Collison can contest; it misses, but he's right in front of the rim to corral his own rebound, and the lead's back to 11.
Rest. Miller took a seat with Denver up 99-92 at the 6:29 mark; when he returned with 3:41 left, the lead was 102-97, with the Nuggets having gone 1 for 6 from the floor with two turnovers in his absence.
2:44: After a scattered Ty Lawson-helmed pick-and-roll possession that led to a missed Gallinari 3-pointer, an offensive rebound by Faried and the ball going out of bounds, Iguodala triggers a side-out to Miller with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Miller wastes no time, driving right at ace Thunder defender Thabo Sefolosha and beating him off the bounce with a right-hand hesitation dribble. He gets to the paint, draws Collison's help and dishes off to Faried, who gets fouled in the act and splits his free throws, pushing the lead to six.
2:24: With the lead still 103-97, Miller rebounds a missed Durant 3 and dribbles over half-court, tracked by Sefolosha. Faried races up above the left elbow to set a screen, but Miller dribbles away to his right, sending Faried back down to the left low block. Next, Gallinari cuts across from the left wing to set a screen at the right elbow, but again, Miller declines, dribbling back to his left and ragging clock.
Finally, with six seconds left on the shot clock, Miller takes a screen, this one set by Iguodala at the left elbow. Westbrook, who's been ready to explode out of his XX8s the entire possession, jumps right around the pick to hedge and picks up Miller from Thabo on the switch. From there, a subtle move makes a big difference — as he rolls, Iguodala retreats back behind the 3-point arc, drawing Sefolosha away from the spot of the switch. With Lawson and Gallinari spreading the floor on the right side and Faried bringing Collison back toward the basket, that leaves a lot of room for Miller to attack ... so he does, and beats the younger, faster Westbrook off the dribble to the right, getting into the lane and releasing a runner with less than two seconds left on the shot clock. Bottoms. 105-97, Denver.
1:40: After a missed Jackson 3-pointer that would have cut the lead to five, Miller slowly dribbles up against Sefolosha on the right side. It's the weak side of the Nuggets' set, with Lawson stationed in the right corner, Gallinari planted at the left wing, Iguodala in the far corner and Faried in the low left block. Faried cuts up to the right elbow to set a screen for Miller, stopping Thabo clean and putting the defender on Miller's right hip as he dribbles to his left.
This leaves Collison, Faried's man, in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't position — if he steps up to contain Miller's dribble, he risks leaving a lane for a thread-the-needle pass to Faried for a dunk, but if he hangs back to stay with Faried's roll, he lets Miller get a pretty clean look at the kind of leaner he just hit after beating Westbrook off the dribble. Collison decides to stay with his assignment and protect against a dunk; Miller's totally OK with that, raising up and draining a short jumper to push the lead to 10.
From there, Miller — an 85.8 percent free-throw shooter this season — made 5 of 6 freebies in the last 90 seconds to keep the Thunder from getting within a couple of possessions and having a puncher's chance at stealing a victory in the closing stages of Tuesday night's contest. As calmly and coolly as you please.
He was far from the only reason Denver came away with perhaps its best win of the season — you've also got to give credit to Lawson's scoring output (25 points on 8 for 13 shooting), the Denver bigs' massive performance on the glass (17 offensive rebounds leading to 19 second-chance points) and the offensive push the Nuggets made in the second quarter to come back and make a game of it after giving up 34 points on 59.1 percent shooting to the Thunder in the opening 12 minutes.
A comparatively poor night from Durant (34 points, but on 10 for 23 shooting with six turnovers) helped, as did the defensive stand Denver made to open the third quarter, forcing OKC into five midrange misses that, combined with three at-the-rim blocks by Faried, opened the door for an 11-2 run that put Denver on top. Plenty goes into beating a team as good as the Thunder in their gym, especially on the second night of a road back-to-back.
But Miller's sensational performance — he finished with 20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and a steal in just 23 minutes — was about as big a reason as there could be. And because he won't toot his own horn — asked by the Post's Hochman if this was his best birthday ever, Miller said, "Yeah, it was all right" — we'll toot it for him.