NBA Finals: Nuggets must defy human nature to close out series, says Michael Malone
Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone knows the mind can play tricks on players when it comes to crunch time in the NBA Finals, so he’s trying out some mental games himself.
His team needs one more win against the Miami Heat to secure their first NBA championship title, after Friday’s victory in South Florida gave them a 3-1 lead in the series.
Back on home court Monday, the odds favor the Nuggets who in the last two games have had the measure of Miami in every department of the game.
The home crowd will turn up expecting a celebration and the pundits will talk of Denver needing to simply wrap up the series but Malone knows that kind of mood spells danger.
“My biggest concern going into any close-out game is human nature and fighting against that,” he told reporters.
“You’re up 3-1. Most teams, when you’re up 3-1, they come up for air. They relax and they just kind of take it for granted that, ‘oh, we’re going to win this,’” he said.
“The neat thing for us is that going back to the (COVID-19) bubble, we’ve been down 3-1. We’ve come back and won. We know anything is possible,” he said.
Three years ago the Nuggets pulled off the relatively rare series comeback twice in the same post-season.
They overturned the Utah Jazz’s 3-1 lead in the Western Conference first round and then did the same against the Los Angeles Clippers in the semi-finals.
So Malone has told his team to put themselves in Miami’s shoes and play like a team who has to win to survive in the series.
“That’s why my message to our team (on Sunday) was our approach has to be we are down 3-1. They are desperate; we have to be more desperate. They are hungry; we have to be hungrier,” he said.
“There is no celebrating after Game 4. We have another game that we have to win, and the close-out game is always the hardest game ever,” he said.
There have only been eleven other cases in the NBA of a team winning from a 3-1 deficit and only once has it occurred in the finals — in 2016 when the Cleveland Cavaliers fought back against the Golden State Warriors.
At the same time, while demanding that hunger, Malone has been reminding his team that they must stick with the approach that has taken them to their first ever finals.
“Stay in the moment and once that jump ball goes up tomorrow night, our players, every possession, every moment of that game can’t be (thinking) ‘We have to win this game.’”
“We have to stay true to ourselves, trust what’s gotten us to this point,” he said.
“After game four in Miami, everybody was yelling, ‘Just one more win.’ Hey, let’s just win the first quarter tomorrow night. Take it in small bites. And if you do that possession by possession, quarter by quarter, hopefully when 48 minutes are over, you’ve done what you needed to do.”
That is a mindset that requires cool heads and luckily for Malone, his star man Luka Jokic is ice-cool.
Asked about how he and the team would handle the emotions of such a momentous game, Jokic was utterly on-brand.
“I think it’s not going to be emotional,” said the Serb.
“It’s going to be a job that we need to do to be done. I think we are ready. I think we are going to be locked in and ready to go. It’s just going to be a game that we need to win.”
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