DENVER — Andre Miller filled a gaping hole in his basketball resume Saturday.
“I’ve never hit a game-winning shot,” the 37-year-old guard said after sinking a nifty layup with just over a second left that gave the Denver Nuggets a 97-95 win over the Golden State Warriors in their playoff opener.
Not in high school.
Not in college.
Not in his 13 NBA seasons.
“Never,” Miller repeated. “I’ve taken a couple and missed or turned the ball over. But that was big for a first playoff game.”
With the youthful Nuggets in danger of losing at home for the first time in more than three months, Miller stepped up and scored 18 of his playoff career-high 28 points in the frenetic fourth quarter that made up for a plodding start to this much-anticipated series between two of the NBA’s highest-octane teams.
The sixth-seeded Warriors trailed 93-92 when Stephen Curry was pick-pocketed by Ty Lawson, whose layup made it a three-point game with 35 seconds remaining.
Curry, who shot his way into NBA history by sinking a record 272 3-pointers this season, got a whistling pass from Jarrett Jack in the left corner and swished a contested 3 with Lawson all over him and 14 seconds left.
“That’s a tough shot,” Lawson said. “He pumped-faked, I still contested it and he knocked it down. That’s what he does.”
With the game tied at 95, Denver called timeout and coach George Karl started going through the options.
“We were all looking at each other. Andre was hot, we were kind of like, ‘Why don’t we just get out of the way and let Andre have the ball,’” Corey Brewer recounted. “That’s what happened. He had Draymond Green on him and we kind of like those odds.”
So do the Warriors.
“We like that matchup for Draymond to come in and get that stop for us,” Curry said. “He just made a quick adjustment at the end to get the ball on the backboard.”
And for once, a game-winner fluttered through the net for Miller.
“A very crafty guy,” Green said. “I thought I was in front of him and he made one slithery move and just get a half a step on me and that’s all he needed to finish the shot.”
The Warriors had no timeouts left, so they inbounded the ball and Curry’s desperation shot wasn’t close as the horn sounded and the Nuggets swarmed the veteran.
“I’m never surprised with Andre Miller,” Brewer said. “I say he’s ‘unguardable.’ They always talk about these Kobe, LeBron, if you give Andre Miller the ball he’s one of the toughest guys to guard in NBA.”
Game 2 is Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets posted an NBA-best 38-3 home record during the season and have a franchise-best 24-game winning streak — barely.
“It could have went either way tonight so we have to be better prepared on Tuesday,” Miller said.
Miller is one of Karl’s favorite players.
“I just love him,” Karl said. “He’s an incredible playmaker. He loves to make people better, loves to make his team better. When the game is in that guts and glory situation, Andre is pretty damn good.”
Miller and Karl would like nothing more than to win that elusive ring together, but first Miller has to make it out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in his career, the next item on his to-do list now that he’s tasted the exhilaration of a game-winning basket.
“I think this is probably the best opportunity ... to get out of the first round,” Miller said.
The Warriors showed him it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. But they weren’t boasting, either.
Not only did they drop a heartbreaker and a chance to snatch the home-court advantage from the league’s best home team but they also lost All-Star big man David Lee to a possible right hip flexor strain in the fourth quarter.
Lee banged into JaVale McGee on a drive to the hoop and winced in pain as he landed on his right hip. After gathering himself, he shot both free throws, then couldn’t run back downcourt and was taken for X-rays.
Lee finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds, all but two off the defensive glass. Klay Thompson led Golden State with 22 points and Curry had 19 — after missing his first nine shots. Jarrett Jack added 10 points and 10 assists.
Center Andrew Bogut, who’s been bothered by a bone bruise on his surgically repaired left ankle, had 14 boards and nine points for the Warriors.
After Miller, none of the Nuggets scored more than a dozen points as Denver missed 13 of 16 3-pointers and 10 free throws.
The fantastic fourth quarter followed a plodding first 2½ quarters that wasn’t anything like the run-and-run game everyone expected from these two teams. That notion fizzled in the first half with a rash of poor shooting, turnovers and debatable calls. Denver would have matched its lowest point total for a first half if not for Wilson Chandler’s breakaway basket at the buzzer that pulled the third-seeded Nuggets to 48-44 at halftime.
Not having their best free-throw shooter in Danilo Gallinari (out with an ACL injury) and their top rebounder in Kenneth Faried (ankle), who’s day to day, didn’t help.
But the Nuggets pulled out another close one at home, where they haven’t lost since Jan. 18.
Golden State coach Mark Jackson played in plenty of playoff games but this was his postseason coaching debut. He said he had no butterflies, however, because his team is the heavy underdog and “If I was picking, I’d pick them to win it. I’d pick them to win this series.”
Karl freely admitted he was a bundle of nerves before tip-off: “I’m nervous for summer league games, so why wouldn’t I be nervous for this game?”
Turns out he had good reason to fret, but thanks to Miller’s clutch play no reason to lament a loss.
“Our personality is young. But we believe, we trust, we fight,” Karl said. “Would I like to have an easier game? Hell, yeah, I’d like to have an easier game. Playoff basketball isn’t about easy games. We’re trying to figure out our personality without Kenneth. Andre Miller was the man tonight.”
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