By ARNIE STAPLETON
DENVER (AP) — Paul Millsap is showing the young’uns how it’s done.
Millsap scored 19 of his 24 points in the first half Tuesday night, sparking Denver’s 124-98 blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers that put the Nuggets on the verge of their first trip to the Western Conference finals in a decade.
The 34-year-old forward with nearly 100 games of playoff experience has injected some savvy into a series dominated by youth and emerging stars.
“It’s not his first time, you know? He’s been here before,” Jamal Murray said. “He’s showing everybody the ropes. … He does all the little things that can help us win games and sets the tone for us.”
Millsap is averaging 19 points and 9.6 boards in the best-of-seven series that the Nuggets lead 3-2 with Game 6 coming up Thursday night in Portland.
Gary Harris called Millsap “that calming factor” for a team making its first playoff appearance in six seasons. “He’s been huge for us this series. He’s been bringing it offensively, defensively and he helped us get off to a great start today.”
After Millsap got the Nuggets going with a dozen first-quarter points, Nikola Jokic took over from there, scoring 25 points and pulling down 19 rebounds, tying a team NBA playoff high. Murray added 18 points to go with nine assists and zero turnovers.
Damian Lillard, who led Portland with 22 points, said it’s exhausting facing the waves of young sharpshooters the Nuggets send at you, starting with the fulcrum of Jokic and Murray running the pick-and-roll.
“And then when all else fails, you’ve got to guard Millsap,” Lillard lamented. “He’s a handful for guys to guard because he’s in the paint, he’s making face-up jumpers, he’s making 3s. In transition, you’ve got to find him, and then he’s a monster on the glass.”
Leaning on Millsap’s experience and well-rounded game, he said, “is just something they can always go to, something they can always count on. So, it’s tough to deal with.”
Millsap helped the Nuggets turn in the first lopsided game of a series that was so evenly matched coming in that Denver held a cumulative scoring advantage of 464-462 and both teams had made the same number of free throws and 3-pointers.
The Nuggets never trailed and stretched a six-point lead after one quarter to 18 at the half and 28 heading into the fourth quarter. They led by as many as 31 before a parade of backups gave the starters some much-needed breathers.
Coming off a resounding Game 4 win that followed that epic quadruple-overtime loss, the Nuggets were focused and efficient just as coach Mike Malone promised when he said Denver wouldn’t dare let up and exhale at home after reclaiming the home-court advantage.
Whatever adjustments Blazers coach Terry Stotts tried to make at the half didn’t take as the Nuggets outscored Portland 28-18 in the third quarter, and before long, the Blazers were thinking more about salvaging Game 6 and hoping to regroup for a return trip to Denver in hopes of a different outcome.
“We’ve got two must-wins ahead of us,” Stotts said.
Malone said he hopes his team learned from its Game 6 loss at San Antonio last series and doesn’t have a similar letdown in Portland. Although the Nuggets have contained Lillard, Malone said the Nuggets are well aware that the Blazers’ star could go off for 50 points Thursday night.
Lillard concurred, saying, “I’ve had big games against tough defense in games where I was getting a lot of attention. With our season on the line and knowing we’ve got to have two games in a row, you never know.”
Malone lives in the neighborhood where a school shooting left one student dead and several wounded Tuesday in suburban Denver. Malone and his wife have two daughters who attend school nearby.
“When kids go to school, they should be going to school to learn, have fun, be with their friends, not worried about an active shooter,” Malone lamented during a heartfelt pre-game news conference .
Malone didn’t want to address the tragedy with his team before tip-off, saying it was “a conversation and a subject maybe on an off day.” He also was struggling with how he’ll talk about it with his kids: “I’m texting my daughter, telling her she’s going to be OK — I don’t even know if she will be OK.”
Portland: Blazers center Enes Kanter said he reached out to NBA great Hakeem Olajuwon for advice on performing in the playoffs while fasting during Ramadan. “He gave me tips,” said Kanter, who is avoiding all food and drink from sunrise to sunset, which was about a half hour before tip-off Tuesday night…. Meyers Leonard was whistled for a flagrant 1 foul for excessive contact on Jokic in the closing minutes.
Denver: Murray picked up a technical in the third quarter while demonstrating a move by Lillard to an official, who took offense. … Denver outscored Portland 66-44 in the paint and outrebounded the Trail Blazes 62-44. … The Nuggets shot 90.3% from the free throw line (28 of 31) whereas the Blazers were 16 of 30 for 53.3%.
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AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.