We’re talking about effort, and the Nuggets’ lack of it, in the NBA Finals.
That’s how a ticked-off Michael Malone opened his postgame press conference after the Nuggets’ 111-108 Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat.
And he was right.
The Nuggets’ lack of effort, but also their discipline, communication, and overall focus wasn’t at the level it needed to be Sunday. That’s why Denver now finds itself in an NBA Finals matchup against the Heat that feels like it’s just getting started.
“You guys probably thought I was just making up some storyline after Game 1 when I said we didn’t play well. We didn’t play well,” said Malone. “Tonight, the starting lineup to start the game, it was 10-2 Miami. Start of the third quarter, they scored 11 points in two minutes and 10 seconds. We had guys out there that were just, whether feeling sorry for themselves for not making shots or thinking they can just turn it on or off, this is not the preseason, this is not the regular season. This is the NBA Finals. That to me is really, really perplexing, disappointing.”
Jeff Green agreed with Malone’s assessment.
“It’s the fucking Finals, man,” Denver’s veteran said. “Our energy has to be better. We can’t come out like we did, and we have to be better.”
How the Nuggets lost Game 2 was shocking. Stunning. Surprising. It was a total out-of-character loss from a Denver team that’s been locked in throughout the entire playoffs. The Heat shot 17-35 (48.6%) from 3-point range. So many of those attempts were wide open and came directly after defensive breakdowns and miscommunications that the Nuggets have avoided throughout most of this postseason.
“We weren’t ourselves tonight,” said Green.
The Nuggets weren’t themselves — maybe for the first time all postseason — and it’s because of their opponent. The Heat, an eight seed who nearly lost their second play-in game and missed the playoffs completely, are an entirely different team from the three Denver has faced so far on its run to the Finals.
Miami is incredibly tough. The Heat are disciplined, physical and aren’t going to fold in the face of adversity. They’re not going to make the same errors that the Suns or Lakers did. They’re smart, well-coached, and determined. They’re going to capitalize on your miscues.
“They are punishing you as soon as you make mistakes,” Nikola Jokic said. “Hopefully we’re going to be disciplined for the next game.”
They’re not scared of the Nuggets either.
And in the first quarter of Game 2, the Nuggets looked a little scared. Miami ramped up its intensity and aggressiveness, and it felt like it got to Denver. The Nuggets looked rattled and soft, except for Jokic, whose 41 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 assists weren’t enough to carry his squad to victory. To open the first quarter, Denver was immediately back on its heels their heels. Some Nuggets players never regained their footing.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the only player on the Nuggets who’s won a championship, didn’t look like his typical steady self in Game 2. Caldwell-Pope fouled out in 36 minutes. Two of his fouls were on Heat 3-point attempts. Michael Porter Jr. shot 1-6 from 3-point range and is now shooting 3-17 through two Finals games. He looked discombobulated all night. I bet the Heat feel like they’ve gotten to Porter too.
That’s why Game 3 will be so fascinating. The Heat have their confidence back. I guarantee you that they believe they’re the tougher team. We’re about to learn what the Nuggets are made of. How will every Nugget not-named Jokic bounce back on the road? Can Denver ramp its defensive intensity back up to where it’s been for most of these playoffs?
“As I mentioned after Game 1, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes was concerning. They didn’t make them. So, we got lucky in Game 1,” said Malone. “Tonight, they made them.”
You could tell based on the Nuggets’ postgame locker room that Denver took this loss hard. Porter and Caldwell-Pope exited before speaking with the media. Aaron Gordon was scheduled to go talk at the podium postgame but wasn’t feeling well and also left the arena without speaking. Before he departed, Gordon sat at his locker for around 10 minutes straight with his head down and his hands over his face.
The Nuggets have a lot to think about before Game 3. Mainly, why did they suddenly rest on their laurels and forget what’s gotten them to this point?
Moments after the Nuggets’ first home defeat of the playoffs, Malone asked his team why they lost Sunday night.
Everyone knew the answer.
“Miami came in here and outworked us, and we were by far our least disciplined game of these 17 playoff games,” Malone said.
We’ll see how they respond. It’s officially a series now.