Despite early-series struggles in San Francisco, Nuggets remain unified

Apr 18, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) drives in against Golden State Warriors guard Jordan Poole (3) during the third quarter of game two of the first round for the 2022 NBA playoffs at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As the Denver Nuggets gathered inside Ball Arena in front of a TV to rewatch the film of their horrendous Game 2 loss to the Golden State Warriors, they saw what everyone else who witnessed that game saw.

“We just had a look over that film and it was pretty ugly watching that,” Austin Rivers said after practice on Wednesday afternoon.

To anyone watching or participating in the series so far, it is obvious that very little has gone well for the Nuggets. That is why their odds of winning the series is +1040 according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Denver’s head coach Michael Malone was quick to point out a few very specific figures as to why the series against Golden State has gone so awry for Denver in the first two matchups.

“The points off turnovers – 23 (points) a game – 18 transition points per game, 44 (points) from the 3-point line and we are putting them on the foul line 27 times a game,” Malone stated after practice on Wednesday afternoon. “Taking all of that to the side, the intangibles; we have to play a lot harder and we have to be a lot more physical when we are out there.”

“They are just the aggressors and we are just laying down,” JaMychal Green said when reflecting on the Nuggets two losses to begin the series.

The frustration of so much going wrong for Denver in the first two games of the first round bubbled to the surface and boiled over in Game 2. The reigning Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic was ejected from the game for getting two technical fouls assessed to him and there was a verbal altercation between DeMarcus Cousins and Will Barton III on the bench that grabbed the attention of many.

Still, despite the emotional loss in Game 2, the Nuggets did not splinter. They stayed together and refocused. When asked about the frustration of the first two games and the infighting on the bench in Game 2, all three of Austin Rivers, JaMychal Green, and Malone were in lock-step with their answers.

“That shit happens. It is part of basketball,” Green said. “We are competitive, but at the end of the day we are a unit, we are a team, and we are brothers. So we are going to go out there and fight to win at home.”

“Sometimes that happens,” Rivers said. “Guys play with passion, the game is not going our way and we are losing badly, and some guys are frustrated. Everybody means well so sometimes when things are said, it is all in the heat of the moment so sometimes it happens. It lasted five minutes and guys were over it. It was all just out of frustration and wanting to do better. That is kind of what the first two games were like for us; it just did not go our way and there are things we have to clean up as players.”

“That was out of the system before we got on the plane in Golden State,” Malone said. “No one likes to lose and no one likes to get embarrassed. The frustration came from a good place. We handled that internally and we are moving forward.

“We are together, we are fine, we have moved past that, and we will go into into the game tomorrow night as one unified team. There is no hangover from what happened in that game.”

With that out of the way, the Nuggets headed into a day of rest and recovery after the loss before practicing on Wednesday morning and into the afternoon.

“The mood was frustration, but it was good energy,” Malone said when asked about how the mood of the practice was. “We got something out of it.”

“I think guys understand we are down 2-0. My message is simply that they did what they were supposed to do. They won two at home and now we are coming home and we have a chance to get back in the series by protecting our home court. We are only going to do that if we change how we are playing.”

One of the biggest adjustments Malone wants to see from his team is limiting the Warriors avalanche-like runs. Denver has been obliterated by just a run or two in each game that has left them completely disoriented and discombobulated.

“The games have been decided in two second-quarter runs; 44-12 if you combine the ends of the second quarters from Games 1 and 2,” Malone said. “We just have a hard time recovering from that.”

That is why Malone made sure to set aside time at practice to specifically key in on diagnosing how and why these runs are occurring. Denver has made mistakes to stimulate these runs and dissecting exactly what those mistakes are could dramatically improve Denver’s chances of avoiding those runs by the Warriors.

“We watched some of the runs they have had against us to look at why we are allowing those big runs,” Malone said. “We are compounding it; they are scoring, we are coming down not getting organized and not executing and not getting the best shot we can get, and now you are fueling a scary team offensively. We have seen that in the first two games and hopefully we can find a way to be a lot more effective and efficient come Game 3.”

In Green’s eyes, he thinks Denver is also trying to play at the Warriors ideal pace of play; not the Nuggets. Focusing on playing at the speed Denver wants to play at should help minimize how effortless these Warriors runs have felt.

“Once they get on a run, we cannot play fast like they do. We have to slow it down, run some sets and get back into the game,” he said. “We have to crawl our way back in and sometimes I feel we try to play their game and that is not our game.”

Still, while stopping those seemingly unstoppable rushes is only part of the equation. Denver also needs to find a way to help Jokic on the offensive end of the floor.

“Other guys have to step up. Draymond Green is literally not guarding anybody,” Malone pointed out. “He is playing free safety out there and so we have to, and players he is guarding, have to find a way to be effective and make them pay for doing that. Until we do, it is going to be hard for Nikola to go off when he has three guys around him and they are saying we are going to make one of your other guys beat us. That is going to be a big, big key for us getting back into the series is having that next player step up and have that big game.”

The one player who Denver needs significantly more production from is Aaron Gordon, who is averaging just 7.5 points per game on 31.6% shooting from the field. Malone is aware the Nuggets need to find a way to get him going and he also made sure to prioritize time on Wednesday at practice to get with his coaching Staff and Gordon to find ways to get him into an offensive rhythm.

“We talked with Aaron today about different ways we can counter how they are guarding him and how he can not only help himself, but if they are not going to guard him, he can also help his teammates a lot as well,” Malone said. “Obviously we are not going to get into what those things are but for me I think it starts with an aggression level. Be aggressive.”

While getting Jamal Murray back from his ACL tear would be a massive boost, it does not appear to be imminent. When Malone was asked about Murray after practice, this is what he had to say.

“It is killing him,” Malone said about Murray having to watch from the bench. “Once again, you go back to the 19 playoff games in the bubble – his last playoff experience – and he averaged 27 points a game, six or seven assists, five or six rebounds, and he did so shooting 50% from the field and damn near 50% from three. Yes, it is killing him to not be out there and help us. If you look at their team, they have a three-headed monster in Poole, Curry and Klay. Right now, obviously, Jamal would be a welcomed addition with his playoff experience and how well he plays in the playoffs. He mentioned to me how it is really kind of driving him crazy that he is not able to go out there and help his teammates out.”

When Malone was asked if Murray went through practice today, he said, “yeah, but we did not do anything live.

“He was out there helping us out, but he is not going to be playing tomorrow night.”

So with no Murray in Game 3, what can the Nuggets do to control the game in a way they have failed to in Games 1 and 2? The consensus opinion among the Nuggets roster and coaching staff comes down to Denver’s willingness to be physical and aggressive.

“I think when you have two talented teams…the most aggressive team is going to win,” Malone said. “They have been the most aggressive team. They have been the more physical team.

“Until that changes, we have no chance in hell of winning a game in this series.”

Green echoed Malone’s sentiment as well.

“We need everybody to set a tone,” Green said. “We need everybody to go out there, be physical, and hit somebody. We cannot be the ones getting hit. We cannot be the ones crying and asking for fouls. We need to go and play through all of that.”

The Nuggets fully believe they can still win this series and that it just comes down to their own level of execution and urgency. Everyone on the roster knows this and is prepared for what is ahead because they know what the outcome will be if they do not play with the requisite desperation.

“Are we desperate? Well, we better play desperate,” Malone said. “We have to have a desperation and urgency about us tomorrow night or we will be down 3-0.”

Both Green and Rivers believes the team is ready for this challenge and that the Nuggets are embracing it.

“We got fighters and we are not quitters so until it is over with, we won’t stop fighting,” Green said.

“No one is down right now.,” Rivers said. “I have been down 0-2 plenty of times in my career and came back but you have to win Game 3. This is a must-win for us. We know that. We cannot go down 3-0 so we are not going to sugarcoat it either. We do not want to be in this situation, but we are here, you know what I mean?

“You win one game and it is a series. That is all you can do. We have home court next game, we play tomorrow and we need to go get that ‘W’.”

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