“We’re not satisfied,” Malone said after a 108-95 win Friday night at Kaseya Center, his team’s fifth straight road playoff win. “Just understand that we haven’t done anything. I told our guys, the first thing I said, ‘We’re not celebrating. It’s a good win. We’ve done our job. But we’re not celebrating like we’ve done anything yet.’
“We know we’re going to have to go home and turn off the TV, the radio. Don’t read the papers. Don’t listen to everybody telling you how great you are because we haven’t done a damn thing yet.”
Malone coaches Denver hard, and he won’t let up because he doesn’t have to go easy on these players. They want this as badly as he does. He ripped them after Game 2, and that was enough. Malone can save his next lecture for next season. They aren’t going to allow him to criticize their effort, their discipline or their patience again.
The Nuggets are dialed in mentally. To play well against the Heat, you must think the game. Coach Erik Spoelstra and his players throw all the guts and brainpower they have at opponents, testing them with their switching defenses, offensive wrinkles and personnel shuffling. They have turned these NBA Finals into a slower game, but Denver has shown that it can handle methodical basketball, too.
The Heat controls the tempo; the Nuggets own everything else. Three double-digit Denver victories confirm that. In the one game Miami won, it had to erase a 15-point deficit. The series could easily be over by now.
The Heat players won’t quit. So the Nuggets will have to end them.
“We have a lot of guys that have a quiet toughness about them,” Malone said.
That toughness — physical and mental — has been on display the last two games. After losing home court advantage in Game 2, the Nuggets came to South Florida and swept both games. They won in different ways. Game 3 was a testament to the greatness of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, who each posted historic 30-point triple-doubles. Game 4 turned into a showcase of power forward Aaron Gordon (27 points) and backup guard Bruce Brown (21 points), and with the entire supporting cast contributing, Jokic and Murray adjusted their games accordingly. The Nuggets are as versatile as they come, and on top of all their talent and chemistry, they have become a consistent defensive team.
On Monday at Ball Arena, they can win their first title in front of their home crowd.
“We believed and we knew how good we were for a few years now,” said Murray, who had 12 assists and didn’t commit a turnover in Game 4. “So we’re just focused, dialed in and ready to do this thing.”
Jokic and Murray combined to make just 13 of 36 field goal attempts on Friday. So the rest of the team covered for them and shot 60 percent. Except for portions of Game 2, Miami has been unable to disturb the Nuggets’ synergy. It doesn’t matter whether individuals are scoring or struggling; the offense still looks connected. It doesn’t matter who is on the court, either.
In Game 4, Jokic picked up his fifth foul and went to the bench with 9:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. Denver was ahead 86-76 at the time. The Nuggets, powered by their defense, ended up losing just one point off the lead while Jokic sat.
During the regular season, Denver often had trouble operating without Jokic. Now, the Nuggets won’t be denied. In their window of contention, misfortune has plagued them. There have been injuries, poor timing, bouts of immaturity. After their core made the Western Conference finals in 2020, Jokic rose to another level, winning back-to-back MVPs. But that was partly because he made hard-luck teams competitive. Even as an MVP, he couldn’t avoid early playoff exits. His team wasn’t whole. With the Nuggets healthy, Jokic stood on the bench during that fourth quarter and celebrated the team’s success without him.
“All season long, it was like, oh, the non-Nikola minutes, they’re kind of a crapshoot,” Malone said. “You’re watching the game like this sometimes …”
Malone shielded his eyes.
Then he put his hand down and spoke confidently.
“The guys that are out there, they’re competing, and they’re defending,” said Malone, whose team has held the Miami to less than 100 points in its three victories. “Maybe our offense may not be as beautiful as it is with Nikola, but the five guys that are out there are defending.”
The Nuggets are beginning to like the hard parts as much as the fun stuff. The Heat plays chess. Early in the series, it irritated the Nuggets. That’s what Malone meant when he lamented a lack of discipline. Little things matter against the Heat. The Nuggets are willing to steady themselves and take that microscopic view.
“It’s a different series,” Murray said. “We’ve got to slow down. This game was more of execution, no turnovers, rebound, get stops and stay together.
“But we’re all on a string. Everybody is rotating for each other. Even if we make a mistake, somebody is there to step up, and if that person makes a mistake, somebody else is there. Even if we don’t get the stop, we’re all in the right mind-set. I think we’re doing a good job of just playing for each other on both ends of the floor.”
As a team built mainly through the draft, the Nuggets grew from a nascent contender to a mature, hungry squad prepared to fight for its time in the spotlight. The Nuggets stand on the porch of prestige, eager to walk in but careful to appreciate every step.
“We’re excited,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “but the job’s not done.”
They are so present right now that, if they finish the job, they’ll be a little sad to exit this moment. The hard part is now the fun stuff.
POST AUTHOR: Jerry Brewer