PORTLAND, Ore. — Give Michael Malone credit, the Denver Nuggets coach is as relentless a salesman as there is in basketball.
Whether it’s moving speeches delivered to his own team or pleading with television audiences to stand up and take notice of the splendid compilation of talent the franchise has stockpiled in recent years, he refuses to let up.
From building the legend of Jamal Murray or waxing poetic about the virtues of Nikola Jokic, the nimble giant prone to triple-doubles on the regular, Malone is prepared to use the bully pulpit to make sure no one overlooks the Nuggets.
A seven-game series win over San Antonio in the first round produced some of Malone’s best stuff to date, including him trumpeting Jokic as not only a legitimate Kia MVP candidate (true, this season) but also a surefire future Hall of Famer (could be, the way he’s playing).
So you had to know Malone was going to be on his Nuggets informercial grind after they refused to lose Sunday in Portland, bouncing back after losing a grueling four-overtime thriller to the Trail Blazers here Friday night with a gritty 116-112 triumph to tie this series at 2-2 headed back to Denver for Tuesday’s critical Game 5.
“I’m so proud of our group,” Malone said, after his talented crew showed off the chops needed to regain the homecourt advantage they surrendered in their Game 2 loss at Pepsi Center. “And in the closing moments, I really was confident because in close games this year we were 13-3 [in games] decided by three points or less, best record in the NBA. We’re 12-1 in the second nights of back-to-backs, best record in the NBA. Our guys are tough; to come in here and win this game some 36 hours after losing a four-overtime game speaks to just how tough we are. So I wasn’t worried, we had our starting group out there.
“Jamal, who I thought was phenomenal tonight, goes 11-for-11 from the foul line in a hostile environment and really kind of with the series hanging in the balance. You go down 1-3, and we all know how that story ends. I think the confidence of doing the same thing in the first round against San Antonio helped us, but our guys stepped up. We never frayed. We stayed together. And I can’t speak enough about the resiliency and toughness of our team.”
And he shouldn’t. The Blazers had won 12 straight games at home dating back to the regular season and were 22-2 on their home floor since January 5. When the Nuggets saw their 10-point lead shrink to just a point with 3:02 to play as Portland closers Damian Lillard (28 points) and C.J. McCollum (29) led the charge, Denver could have easily folded up under the emotional weight of Game 3 and their current predicament.
But they proved to be as resilient and tough as Malone said they were.
Jokic was brilliant again, collecting his fourth triple-double (21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists) in his first postseason, second only to the five Magic Johnson piled up during his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
And Murray was even better, finishing with a game-high 34 points and draining six straight free throws in the frantic closing seconds to seal the win for a Nuggets team that didn’t allow fatigue, a raucous and sellout Moda Center crowd or the pressure to avoid that 3-1 hole rattle them.
“It wasn’t the first time,” Murray said of his embrace of the pressure with the game on the line at the line. “I think free throws are my thing. My dad and I do a lot of training [on] free throws. Blindfolded, he’ll talk to me just like how the crowd is, put pressure on me. I take 1,000 free throws in practice to make or or two … and tonight, it ended up being six.”
The number Malone focused on afterwards was 11, as in the number of playoff games Murray and Jokic have played in as they continue to establish themselves as postseason stars.
“You think about how young we are and and what we are doing, going on the road and winning a tough game in a hostile environment,” Malone said, “and for Jamal to be the centerpiece of that has been phenomenal. If you’re a Denver Nuggets fan, how excited are you about this team now. More importantly, how excited are you for our future? We have a chance to be a really good team for many, many years and Jamal is going to be a big part of that.”
If you’re a Denver Nuggets fan, how excited are you about this team now? More importantly, how excited are you for our future?
The same goes for Jokic, obviously. He’s already an All-Star and is going to end up on the All-NBA first or second team as well as the top five of the voting for Kia MVP after the regular season he put together.
That might explains why the entire Nuggets bench froze as they watched him limp to the sideline in the final moments after being kneed in the leg in the final seconds.
“Your heart skips a beat,” Malone said. “Nikola is the face of our franchise, but he just got kneed, it was nothing serious and and we were able to hold on for the win.”
For all of Malone’s bluster about his group, it’s not even necessary at this stage of the season. The Nuggets earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase on the strength of a talented and deep roster that might not resonate with casual NBA fans, but is celebrated by those in the know.
Touting their accomplishments in real time makes sense for a coach trying to empower his team to believe in themselves in what could and perhaps should be a nice stretch of playoff runs in the future.
But anyone paying attention can tell that the future could be now for these Nuggets.
A trip to the conference finals one year after they failed to make the postseason field on the final night of the season in what amounted to a play-in game in Minneapolis last April, is a hell of a start.
Malone knows it. His team knows it. And so do the Trail Blazers, who are well aware of the opportunity they squandered in a series where wavering confidence by the Nuggets might have been the only advantage they could exploit.
“The good thing for us is that we won a game on their court,” Lillard said. “So it’s not like we lose both games there. We’re in a good space, 2-2, we know we’re capable of winning on their floor and that’t what we’ve got to get done. Obviously, it’s disappointing … we didn’t want to let an opportunity like this slip, but it happens. It’s playoff basketball and we’ve got to move forward.”
So do the Nuggets, which is where Malone the master motivator comes into play.
And just so we’re clear about something, his sell job is genuine.
He knows of what he speaks in assessing a young team on the rise, having spent time coaching in Cleveland and Golden State during the formative stages with what would turn out to be teams that made it to The Finals (2007 in Cleveland). He was on Mark Jackson’s Warriors staff when they turned the corner from a lottery team to playoff outfit (2012-13 season), helping nurture the core group of a team that has won three of the past four NBA titles and become a potential dynasty that no one saw coming at the time.
So if Malone sees special things in his current team, it’s his responsibility to shout about it every now and then, both to the basketball public and especially internally.
Youngsters like Jokic and Murray, Gary Harris and Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Mont Morris and even veterans like Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee and Game 4 hero Will Barton, who knocked down huge shots to help seal the deal, need to hear the positive reinforcement from their coach.
And that’s not even taking into account what absorbing these moments means for Michael Porter Jr., who is spending his rookie season recovering from back surgery, and is certainly going to be a part of that bright future Malone is so passionate about.
If anything, this Nuggets team is ahead of schedule, two wins shy of a trip to the Western Conference finals with three games to play. Two of those are coming on their home floor, where Denver compiled the best record (34-7) in the league during the regular season.
Maybe Malone is right to speak the Nuggets’ success into existence rather than wishing and hoping for it to come to fruition without a word otherwise.
But he won’t have to go all car salesmen on the final day of month much longer.
A couple more performances like the one the Nuggets put on Sunday and this whole thing, the refurbished franchise with all the boxes checked on the roster -- now and for the foreseeable future -- sells itself.
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