Stop it with this notion that the Denver Nuggets — trailing 3-1 in the Western Conference finals — have the Los Angeles Lakers right where they want them.
This isn’t where the Nuggets wanted to be, even after earning the designation of being the first team in NBA playoff history to bounce back from multiple 3-1 deficits to capture series victories in the same postseason.
Denver coach Michael Malone made that clear Friday in the aftermath of his team’s 114-108 loss in Game 4.
“I think people out there probably think this is exactly where we want them,” Malone said. “It’s not. We’d much rather be up 3-1. We’ve put ourselves in this position, and our team has shown tremendous resiliency and grit in getting out of these before. I have no doubt that we’ll bring the same fight to (Game 5 on Saturday). Hopefully, we can keep this series alive.”
It’s a daunting task, to be sure.
So, it came as no surprise minutes after Game 4 when Denver announced it wouldn’t be conducting a practice on Friday. That’s precisely how the Nuggets handled rebounding from 3-1 series deficits to Utah and the L.A. Clippers in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Denver decided to take a step back, so it could move forward.
It’s well-documented that Anthony Davis (34 points) and LeBron James (26 points, eight assists) did their part to help the Lakers improve to 18-1 this season when the duo combines for 60 points or more. But the Lakers also demolished Denver on the glass, taking a 12-6 advantage in offensive rebounding, which allowed them to outscore the Nuggets 25-6 in second-chance points. Veteran Dwight Howard played a major role in that, setting the tone for the Lakers starting opposite Denver big man Nikola Jokic, by grabbing eight boards in the first period, while contributing eight points on 4-of-4 shooting.
“Dwight Howard dominated the first quarter,” Malone said. “When the shot goes up, we have to be a lot more physical. We’ve gotten caught ball-watching, or we’ve been engaged, but just not with the requisite amount of energy and fight.”
He continued, “Going into this series, we talked about two things over and over again: It was transition defense, and rebounding. I think the rebounding has a lot to do with not just last night, but this series overall.”
So, when the Nuggets woke up Friday morning, Malone would have loved to have taken his squad to the practice court for some rebounding drills. But the coach also realizes, “that’s just not realistic,” considering the grind of playing games every other night.
Instead, Malone chose to “review, reflect (and) communicate with our guys,” he said.
That’s a process that started as soon as Malone arrived back at his hotel room after Thursday’s loss. Malone called his wife, Jocelyn, to wish her a happy anniversary, and then wished a happy birthday to one of his two daughters, who celebrated the occasion on Friday, before he changed clothes and turned on the film of Game 4.
Malone turned in for the night at approximately 4 a.m. As soon as he woke back up, Malone starting poring over all of his notes and clips from Game 4, before jotting down even more notes to discuss heading into Game 5.
“You meet with your staff. You talk about what they saw, where we can be better,” Malone said. “Then, you address that with your team. You show the clips, and you talk about it. There’s not a lot you can do physically on a day like this. So, a lot of this now is just so much more mental.”
It’s an approach that worked for Denver over the last two series, and for Malone this current 3-1 deficit feels no different than the last two.
“We’ve been here twice, and we’ve answered the call, if you will,” Malone said. “To be honest, I think in the second round against the Clippers, the Clippers were the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing ahead of the Lakers. So, Clippers, great team. Lakers, great team. We’re down 3-1 again, unfortunately.”
This time, they’re facing a Lakers squad that owns a record of 10-1 in Games 2 through 5 this postseason, led by a 17-year vet in James that has never lost a series with his team ahead 3-1. Los Angeles is 2-0 in close-out games this postseason, having knocked off both Portland and Houston in fewer than seven games.
During Los Angeles’ film session Friday, the Lakers zeroed in on improvements they can make defensively for Game 5. Described as “special” by James, who guarded him late in Game 4, Jamal Murray has already put together four 40-point games this postseason and lit up the Lakers on Thursday for 32 points and eight assists. The Nuggets are 4-2 this postseason when Murray scores 30 points or more.
The deficit on the boards made all the difference. #MileHighBasketball https://t.co/zqMjepLFQG
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) September 25, 2020
Coming off an off night in Game 4 due to foul trouble, Jokic has put together 14 games these past two postseasons in which he’s scored at least 20 points to go with 10 rebounds and five assists.
“(There are) a lot of areas we can still improve and have to improve if we expect to win this series,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our group’s demeanor in all of these playoff games has been (to) treat every one like a must-win. I would say that same mindset has applied to the close-out games we had against Houston and Portland. We know that those are always the most difficult wins to get in a series. We expect this to be no different.”
It’s an opportunity Los Angeles wants to make sure it doesn’t squander.
Howard (12 points, 11 rebounds) pieced together his first postseason double-double since April of 2017, and before this season, he hadn’t advanced beyond the first round since 2015. So, for many, these opportunities don’t come often, which is why Howard knows exactly what Los Angeles faces on Saturday in Game 5.
“They’re gonna give us their best shot,” Howard said. “We understand that. We’re one step closer to our dreams. So, we’re not gonna let our foot off the gas. I think we’re going to bring more intensity than we brought before. We understand how important this series is, and this game. We should treat it like a Game 7 with our intensity and our effort.”
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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .
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