DENVER – After an impressive win and leading 1-0 in the 2023 NBA Finals, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone lavishly praised his team’s performance when he met with reporters on Saturday.
“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” he said.
OK. Let’s try that again.
After an impressive win to take a 1-0 lead into the 2023 NBA Finals, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone reiterated the message he delivered to his players in the locker room at Ball Arena on Thursday night.
“I said to our players today, don’t read the newspaper, don’t listen to the people on the radio and TV saying this series is over and we’ve done something,” Malone said. “Because we didn’t do a damn thing.”
Honestly, Malone did compliment several aspects of his squad during his Q&A: the reserve corps of Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun, the unparalleled chemistry between Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray in the two-man game, Jokić’s “underrated defense,” etc. But film study revealed plenty of room for improvement to postpone planning the parade route a little longer.
“I thought our pick and roll defense was bad. I thought our “shrink the floor” was bad,” Malone said. “They got 11 offensive rebounds. Bam [Adebayo] had four. Jimmy [Butler] had three. So there are so many areas that we can clean up.
Understandably, Malone came into the weekend with the intention of making sure his players didn’t suddenly believe the hype. (Though we appreciate Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon’s ongoing support to stay up to date with the news and keep abreast of the world around him.) As dominant as Jokić looked, as deadly as Murray was, as much as the Nuggets towered over the smaller Heat, and as impressive as Denver played three quarters in Game 1 – 84 points to 55.9% shooting, a blistering 121.7 offensive rating – you need to play four at this level.
“Some possessions we played great, and some possessions we didn’t play well,” said Jokić. “Some quarters we played really well. I think that’s basketball. Therefore it is a living thing. You cannot predict what will happen. Yes, of course we are going to get better, but we are going to take the 1-0 for us.”
As the big guy says, it’s about the win. It didn’t escape Malone, however, that Game 1 was still a three-possession game with 2:34 left, despite an atrocious shooting performance from Miami.
“I watched that tape and they were 5 out of 16 on wide open 3’s,” he said. “As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide open threes is problematic. And if you think Max Strus is going to go 0-for-9 again, or Duncan Robinson is going to go 1-for-5 again, you are wrong.”
This is really from a coach raison d’être: to look past the silver lining of the last victory, find the gray cloud of why you may have lost, and return to the lab to renew the eternal quest for sunlight. Grinders like Malone and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra spend their lives obsessing over details, sweating every detail, chasing perfection in a game where the best forwards miss half their shots and the best defenses give up 110 points a night. They will never reach it. However, if you get close enough, they’ll give you a big gold trophy.
“The reason I told our players I was excited this morning is because we won Game 1 and didn’t play well, and there are so many things we can do better,” said Malone.
Fresh in the mind of the Nuggets? A fourth quarter that saw Denver outscored 30-20 as the Heat cut a 24-point deficit to just 9 points. The Nuggets shot just 7-for-20 from the floor, missing all eight of their 3-point attempts, as Miami’s zone defense—which they had broken up in the first half—appeared to choke and stagnate their previously free-flowing offense. .
“There was definitely a period in that game where we just launched deep 3s, contested shots,” said Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., who missed nine of his 11 triple attempts in Game 1 (a fact that Real surprised Jokic). “I don’t think we’ve really seen a zone the way they do, so it’s hard to make adjustments in the middle of a game when you don’t really know what’s going on.”
A look at the movie, however, made the Nuggets feel like their assault on those assets was still pretty good, even if they didn’t produce the results they wanted.
“I know Miami missed a lot of shots, but we also missed a few shots,” said Murray. “When they went zone, Jok missed an open 15-footer. I missed an open 10-footer. Mike missed a wide open corner 3. I missed a catch-and-shoot on the wing, which was wide open. I think there are a few more. But we got the looks we needed. We just didn’t knock them down. If we take them down, I think they’ll break up the zone a little bit and go back to human.
That would be a good thing considering Denver’s score of more than 1.2 points per possession against man-to-man defense in the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum — a figure that would have led the league during the regular season. But Malone, a first-team defensive line coach at heart, had an alternate throw for how the Nuggets could better neutralize the zone in Game 2.
“The reason their zone was effective in that fourth quarter was because we didn’t get any stops,” Malone said. “They shot 60%, which allowed them to set up every possession in their zone, it seemed.”
The Heat began to get back into the game using Denver’s drop pick and roll coverage, with Kyle Lowry taking advantage of a flat-footed Murray to set up Gabe Vincent for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer in the corner before ducking behind Adebayo screens to clear out a few pull-up triples of his own. The Nuggets adapted and moved their bigs higher on the floor and closer to the level of the screen, which opened the door for Adebayo making plays in space – something he did all night with 26 points on 13-for- 25 shooting with five assists.
“It was just a great opportunity for me,” said Adebayo. “I feel like all those shots were in my wheelhouse and I’ve been shooting them all season.”
But while Malone would rathe
r not give up all those brands to someone in a Heat uniform, that shot diet doesn’t seem to bother him too much.
“We weren’t going to say, ‘We’re going to make Bam Adebayo beat us,'” he said. “We came in with full respect for Bam Adebayo. But if you score 26 points on 25 shots, that’s something we have to live with.”
The Heat, for their part, know they have to give the Nuggets something can not empathize in Game 2. For example: more paint attacks from Butler, who scored just 13 points on 14 shots, with only seven of those tries in lane.
“I just think I have to try harder to get the ball, demand the ball, be more aggressive,” Butler said. “That’s just that, and that will change in Game 2. … I think I need to be more aggressive about putting pressure on the rim. I think that makes everyone’s job a lot easier. [My teammates] definitely follow suit when I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off right, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.
There is a world of difference between a 2-0 deficit and a 1-1 draw in Miami. Therefore, Malone and the Nuggets expect Butler and the rest of the Heat to dramatically increase their strength and aggression on Sunday. If the Nuggets don’t match, all that positivity will fade after Game 1 terribly quickly.
“You just can’t be complacent with this team. You can’t be lax,’ Gordon said. “You can’t sleep in this team. This team knows no stopping. They will continue to fight throughout the game. You have to understand that about this team. You can’t take your foot off the gas with these guys.
Sounds like Malone’s message came across loud and clear.
“First round, Final, it’s nothing until you win it, right?” Murray said. “We haven’t won it yet.”
Getting Game 2 on Sunday would put them half way through. The Nuggets have a golden opportunity ahead of them. The Heat’s job is to force them to squander it.
“We’re here,” Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “Don’t drop the ball on the 1 yard line.”