DENVER — Coming off an impressive victory to take a 1-0 lead in the 2023 NBA Finals, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone offered effusive praise of his team’s performance when he met with reporters Saturday.
“I don’t think we played well in Game 1,” he said.
OK. Let’s try that again.
Coming off an impressive victory to take a 1-0 lead in the 2023 NBA Finals, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone echoed the message he delivered to his players in the locker room at Ball Arena on Thursday night.
“I told our players today: Don’t read the paper, don’t listen to the folks on the radio and TV saying that this series is over and that we’ve done something,” Malone said. “Because we haven’t done a damn thing.”
In fairness, Malone did compliment multiple aspects of his squad during his Q&A: the reserve corps of Bruce Brown, Jeff Green and Christian Braun, the peerless chemistry between Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray in the two-man game, Jokić’s “underrated defense,” etc. But film study revealed enough room for improvement to hold off on planning the parade route a bit longer.
“I thought our pick-and-roll defense was poor. I thought our ‘shrink the floor’ was poor,” Malone said. “They got 11 offensive rebounds. Bam [Adebayo] had four. Jimmy [Butler] had three. So there’s so many areas we can clean up.”
It’s understandable that Malone came into the weekend intent on making sure his players don’t suddenly start believing the hype. (Though we do appreciate Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon’s ongoing support for staying up on the news and remaining informed about the world around him.) As dominant as Jokić looked, as lethal as Murray was, as much as the Nuggets towered over the smaller Heat, and as impressively as Denver played for three quarters in Game 1 — 84 points on 55.9% shooting, a scorching 121.7 offensive rating — you have to play four at this level.
“Some possessions we play amazing, and some possessions we didn’t play good,” Jokić said. “Some quarters we played really good. I think that’s basketball. That’s why it’s a live thing. You cannot predict what’s going to happen. Yes, of course, we are going to be better, but we are going to take 1-0 for us.”
As the big fella says, the win’s the thing. It didn’t escape Malone’s notice, though, that Game 1 was still a three-possession contest with 2:34 to go despite a ghastly shooting performance by Miami.
“I watched that tape, and they were 5-of-16 on wide-open threes,” he said. “As I told our players this morning, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes is problematic. And if you think that Max Strus is going to go 0-for-9 again, or Duncan Robinson is going to go 1-for-5 again, you’re wrong.”
This, really, is a coach’s raison d’être: to look past the silver lining of the last win, find the gray cloud of why you might’ve lost, and get back in the lab, renewing the eternal search for sunlight. Grinders like Malone and Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra have spent their lifetimes obsessing over minutia, sweating every detail, chasing perfection in a game where the best offenses miss half their shots and the best defenses give up 110 points a night. They’ll never reach it. If you get close enough, though, they give you a great big gold trophy.
“The reason I told our players I was excited this morning is because we won Game 1 and we didn’t play well, and there’s so many things we can do better,” Malone said.
Freshest in the Nuggets’ mind? A fourth quarter in which Denver got outscored 30-20, as the Heat chopped a 24-point deficit down to just nine points. The Nuggets shot just 7-for-20 from the floor and missed all eight of their 3-point attempts, as Miami’s zone defense — which they’d carved up in the first half — seemed to stifle and stagnate their previously free-flowing attack.
“There definitely was a period in that game where we were just launching deep threes, contested shots,” said Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., who missed nine of his 11 triple tries in Game 1 (a fact that really surprised Jokić). “I don’t think we’ve really seen a zone the way they do it, 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 film, though, left the Nuggets feeling like their offensive process on those possessions was still pretty sound, even if they didn’t produce the desired results.
“I know Miami missed a lot of shots, but we missed some point-blank shots, as well,” Murray said. “When they went zone, Jok missed an open 15-footer. I missed an open 10-footer. Mike missed a wide-open corner three. I missed a catch-and-shoot on the wing, which was wide open. I think there’s a couple more. But we got the looks we needed. We just didn’t knock them down. If we knock them down, I think they will start to break up the zone a little bit and go back to man.”
That’d be a good thing, considering Denver’s scoring more than 1.2 points per possession against man-to-man defense in the playoffs, according to Second Spectrum — a mark that would’ve led the league during the regular season. But Malone, a defense-first coach at heart, had an alternate pitch 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 in their zone every possession, it seemed.”
The Heat started to get back into the game by exploiting 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 drain a pair of pull-up triples of his own. The Nuggets adjusted, bringing their bigs higher up on the floor and closer to the level of the screen, which opened the door to Adebayo making plays in space — something he did all night to the tune of 26 points on 13-for-25 shooting with five assists.
“It was just a great opportunity for me,” Adebayo said. “I feel like all those shots were in my wheelhouse, and I’ve been shooting them all season.”
But while Malone would prefer not to give up all those makes to anybody in a Heat uniform, that shot diet doesn’t seem to be one that perturbs him too much.
“We didn’t go in saying, ‘We’re going to make Bam Adebayo beat us,’” he said. “We came in with full respect for Bam Adebayo. But if you’re going to score 26 points on 25 shots, that’s something we’re willing to live with.”
The Heat, for their part, know they need to give the Nuggets something they can’t live with in Game 2. For example: More paint attacks from Butler, who scored just 13 points on 14 shots, with only seven of those attempts coming in the lane.
“I just think I’ve got to do a better job of getting the ball, demanding the ball, being more aggressive,” Butler said. “That’s just that, and that will change come Game 2. … I think I’ve got to be more aggressive putting pressure on the rim. I think that makes everybody’s job a lot easier. [My teammates] definitely follow suit whenever I’m aggressive on both sides of the ball. So I have to be the one to come out and kick that off the right way, which I will, and we’ll see where we end up.”
There’s a world of difference between going back to Miami down 2-0 and tied 1-1, which is why Malone and the Nuggets expect Butler and the rest of the Heat to dramatically increase their level of force and aggression come Sunday. If the Nuggets don’t match it, all that post-Game 1 positivity will fade away awful quickly.
“You just can’t be complacent with this team. You can’t be lackadaisical,” Gordon said. “You can’t sleep on this team. This team has no quit. They will continue to fight through the entirety of the game. You’ve got to understand that about this team. You can’t take your foot off the gas with these guys.”
Sounds like Malone’s message got across loud and clear.
“First round, Finals, it’s nothing until you win it, right?” Murray said. “We haven’t won it yet.”
Getting Game 2 on Sunday would get them halfway there. The Nuggets have a golden opportunity in front of them. The Heat’s job is to force them to squander it.
“We’re here,” Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “Don’t fumble the ball on the 1-yard line.”