Nuggets fight back vs. Wolves after Michael Malone pushed all the right buttons during off days

MINNEAPOLIS — Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone didn’t want much. Just a statement. So, he looked at his team earlier this week, cleared his throat and asked the question that would ultimately make or break their current season.

“Do you believe?”

Malone knew the answer. This was a frustrated Denver team trailing a 2-0 deficit in a Western Conference semifinal against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The confidence was there, even with Friday night’s third game looming in a busy Target Center environment. But Malone didn’t just seek verbal confirmation. He wanted to look his team in the eye. He wanted to see everyone on the same page.

“I asked them if they believed we could go to Minnesota and play a great team and win two games,” Malone said. “We have one. Now the challenge is to be able to repeat the same performance and get another one against this same great team.

For much of this postseason, the Denver Nuggets have been trying to find themselves. They were inconsistent against the Los Angeles Lakers, no matter what a five-game series win can tell you. They were competitive in the first game. They were horrible in the second game, embarrassed at home. Their status as reigning NBA champions still commands respect, but much of the talk this week has focused on a Minnesota team poised to win a series that was supposed to be a classic.

The Nuggets still have a long way to go if they want to win this series. But if Friday night’s 117-90 victory tells anything, it’s the story of a resilient Denver team that can step up a gear when provoked. The Nuggets are a proud group who spent the week brooding over their modest Game 2 performance. It was far too long a wait for their liking.

“It was miserable, to be honest,” Denver forward Michael Porter Jr. said. “There was a lot of frustration for us this week.”

Friday night’s win represented the best Nuggets we’ve seen in the playoffs. It was by far their most complete victory. Denver actually won a first quarter and it was the second time in the playoffs that the Nuggets led a game at halftime. Midway through the third quarter, the Nuggets put the game out of reach.

“The start has been great for us,” Malone said. “We’ve been focusing on going out and trying to start games better for a long time. Tonight the starters came out and set the tone from the jump. So we won the first quarter. Then the message was that we won the second quarter, then the third. I loved that not only were we able to get off to a good start, but we were able to maintain it. We were the aggressor tonight, but we’re far from having anything to celebrate as we’re still down 2-1 in the series.

It was a game dominated by league MVP Nikola Jokić, as sublime on Friday as he was strangely distant on Monday. It was a game where star guard Jamal Murray shook off a tumultuous week filled with heat pack throwing, money sign making and possible talk of league suspension. Instead, he was fined heavily, and by Game 3, he looked like the Jamal Murray that Nuggets fans know and love. This was a game where Denver’s offense and defense showed up at the same time.

It’s just one game, and the Nuggets know it. Minnesota may have coughed up and laid an egg in Game 3, but desperation was on Denver’s side. The Nuggets clearly entered Friday night with their season on the line, as no one in league history has rebounded from a 3-0 deficit. The Nuggets’ intensity was something the Timberwolves couldn’t match. The Nuggets know they need to match Friday night’s level and maybe even surpass it in order to put themselves in position to even the series.

The road to Friday night was long and arduous for the Nuggets. They were outscored in Game 2 as Murray had one of his worst games as a pro and Jokić was vastly outplayed in the paint. If this was a regular season loss, the beauty is there could be a game the next night or in two days.

The Nuggets, however, had three days off to sit, simmer and bubble. Malone made sure to keep Game 2 at the forefront of the conversation.

“You can’t just flush the toilet,” is how Malone put it.

The road to Friday evening was therefore tedious. He gave his team a day off on Tuesday. On Wednesday, there was a lengthy film session, followed by an honest conversation between Malone and his players. Thursday brought good training. The theme of the week was consistent: don’t run from what happened Monday night, but embrace what the Timberwolves were able to accomplish and don’t let that define the rest of the series.

Malone went even further. He said he compiled a two-minute clip of “every talking head in the country” saying the Nuggets were finished during the week. But then he started hesitating to show it to his team because he didn’t want to appear disingenuous. Eventually, he asked veteran frontman DeAndre Jordan whether or not he should show the video.

“Hell, yeah,” Jordan said.

Malone still had doubts. So Jordan sent the video to his teammates via the team group text chat.

In the first two games of the series, the Nuggets were pushed around. Friday night, they pushed.

In the first two games, the Nuggets were forced to react. Friday evening, they were the initiators.

There have been some key adjustments. Malone maximized the minutes of Jokić and Murray, who played almost every available minute that wasn’t wasted time. Tactically, to alleviate defensive pressure from Minnesota’s guards, he had Jokić and Aaron Gordon run many offensive sets. Coming off the bench, Justin Holiday has become a centerpiece of this series.


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Beyond that, the Nuggets simply played better. They shot 54 percent from the field. They made 14 of their 29 3-point attempts. They did to the Wolves defensively what was done to them in the first two games of the series. Beyond Jokić and Murray, all of the Nuggets who played competitive minutes played excellent basketball.

People wanted to see how this Nuggets team responded to real adversity. They dominated their way to the championship last season, but this year has been different. How would this Denver team react to a game they had to win? Friday evening brought an answer. Sunday will provide a better understanding of where this series is going for the Nuggets.

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After toasting the NBA, the Timberwolves toasted Denver in Game 3.

“We played a lot better tonight,” Jokić said. “We were running better. We bounced back better. We were more aggressive. We opened the guys up, we created better looks and we took more shots.

“It was a completely different and better game for us than the one we played on Monday night.”

(Photo by Jamal Murray: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

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