If coaching doesn’t work out — and there’s little evidence to suggest it won’t — perhaps Nuggets coach Michael Malone can take up a career in psychology.
Before the Nuggets took part in shooting contests and basic drills as part of their practice Sunday, Malone relayed a message as they’ll vie for their first-ever NBA championship on Monday night at Ball Arena.
“My biggest concern going into any close-out game is human nature and fighting against that,” he said. “You’re up 3-1. Most teams, when you’re up 3-1, they come up for air. They relax and they just kind of take it for granted that, oh, we’re going to win this.”
The Nuggets don’t have to look very far for recent examples of teams blowing commanding leads in the postseason. They stormed back, twice, in the Orlando bubble in 2020, against the Jazz and the Clippers, who each owned 3-1 leads against Denver. But the Nuggets wound up on the right side of history that year and forged their way to the conference finals.
“That’s why my message to our team before we came down to the media and open practice was our approach has to be we are down 3-1,” Malone said. “They are desperate; we have to be more desperate. They are hungry; we have to be hungrier. … The close-out game is always the hardest game ever. So I’m looking forward to seeing our approach. We had it in Game 6 against Phoenix and Game 5 against Minnesota and Game 4 against the Lakers.”
The Nuggets actively didn’t celebrate after they left South Beach with two decisive road wins and a commanding 3-1 series lead, but they’re 9-1 in their last 10 games. Momentum and home-court advantage are all in their favor.
Not that Nikola Jokic cares, or is even aware of their hot streak.
“We are going to approach it as a must-win game,” said Jokic. “I know it’s a big opportunity, and I think everybody knows. By reflection of the practice today, how everybody was locked in, I think we are going to be ready for tomorrow.”
Jokic cited the job of their veterans — DeAndre Jordan, Jeff Green and Ish Smith — for keeping the team engaged and focused. As of Sunday afternoon, nothing had been won yet.
And rather than consider the implications of a win and what the franchise’s first-ever title would mean, Malone has implored his team to stay in the moment.
“’Hey, let’s just win the first quarter tomorrow night,’ he said. “Take it in small bites. And if you do that possession by possession, quarter by quarter, hopefully when 48 minutes are over, you’ve done what you needed to do.”
It’s the same approach Malone took when the Nuggets swept the Lakers in the conference finals. Once Game 4 was over, Malone had to ask himself if they’d really punched their first ticket to the Finals.
“Yeah, I think one thing that I really respect about Coach Malone is just that he’s consistent in how he is,” Michael Porter Jr. said. “Like he hasn’t coached us any different, tried to motivate us any different than he has all season. Coach Malone is very competitive. Even game 82, I think we played against Utah, I’m pretty sure, but he was just as — I think we lost that game. He was just as upset about losing that game as he would a game right now.”
Porter said there was a “sweet spot” the team needed to strike in terms of its emotion. Yes, a title can be won at home, but if they look too far ahead, they’ll be headed to Miami for a Game 6 rather than planning a championship parade.
“I think it’s not going to be emotional,” Jokic said. “It’s going to be a job that we need to do to be done.”
Do the job and then celebrate. The Nuggets know it can’t be the other way around.