Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone was sick of talking.
After three-straight lackluster performances in the first round of the playoffs from his second-seeded Nuggets — including two losses — Malone was ready for words to fall to the wayside and for actions to replace them.
“We have talked a lot the last couple days and I told our players that before going on the court,” Malone explained after the game. “I said, ‘enough talk’. We can talk until were blue in the face about, ‘hey, we’re going to hit them first’ and all of that. Go out there and do it.”
Finally, after a long seven-day wait since Denver’s Game 1 debacle, Malone’s prayers were answered as the Nuggets came into the AT&T Center in San Antonio and absolutely worked the Spurs for three of the four quarters.
“I liked our energy more tonight,” Malone stated with a sense of relief in his voice. “I like the urgency. I liked the fight. I could tell that our guys were more engaged than they were in Game 3. For me, we go through our pregame routine, show the film and the coverages, but I said, ‘fellas, how much more do we need to talk about? Go out there and do your job and leave it on the floor’. They did that.”
After an abysmal first quarter, the Nuggets found their footing and took off. They were able to outscore the Spurs 95-69 in the final three quarters of play and completely dominated San Antonio in almost every facet of the game.
Simply stated, this Nuggets roster was done being the little brother to the Spurs in their first playoff series and they stepped up in a gigantic way in one of the most hostile environments in the National Basketball Association as the eighth youngest playoff team in NBA history.
“I saw a lot of balls on the table to rephrase your question (laughs),” Malone said, referring to male reproductive organs. “I saw confidence — that’s what I saw. I saw a young team that was not thinking about 2012. Because if you think about the last seven years, that’s going to overwhelm you. We’re living in the present; we’re living today — game number four — and that is all were worried about. We’ve been so close. We know we didn’t show up the way we needed to win Game 3 and our guys answered.”
After losing Game 1 and Game 3, Denver absolutely had to find a way to come back to Denver with a win in Game 4 and the only way they were going to do that was by playing as if their postseason lives depended on it, because, well, it did. Being down three games to one against Gregg Popovich and the Spurs — who have been to 22-straigth playoffs and have one of the best home-court advantages in the league — is essentially a death sentence.
The Nuggets knew they had to win and they played like it. They were flat-out hungrier. Just ask the players who were competing against Denver tonight.
“I think they were just the hungrier team,” Derrick White said. “They got all the 50/50 balls and we just didn’t come out hungry enough.
“It was a big game for both teams. They just came out hungry and they just wanted it more than we did.”
White was not the only member of the Spurs to sound off about how much more Denver wanted the win on Saturday afternoon. LaMarcus Aldridge also echoed the same sentiment.
“They wanted it more. They outplayed us,” Aldridge stated. “We didn’t make shots and we didn’t execute on defense as well as we have been. They got going and got the lead and they kept it.
“They were aggresive tonight. Their backs were against the wall and they played like that.”
Lastly, it was DeMar DeRozan who felt the same way and he articulated that after the game.
“You’ve got to give credit to Denver,” DeRozan said. “It was a must-win for them. They came out and played more harder than us, more smarter than us, and they wanted that win. Now, it’s first one to win two (games).”
It took a total team effort, but that is what made the win even sweeter for the Nuggets. Denver is an egalitarian-style team and are at their best when they are playing in unison, not in isolation.
In Game 4, that was on full display. Denver had five players in double figures and 25 assists on 40 made baskets. Nikola Jokic was nothing short of a superstar, Jamal Murray put together one of his most complete games of his career, Torrey Craig had a career-best night, Monte Morris was his usual steady self, and — despite being demoted — Will Barton came up big off the bench when Denver needed a spark.
“It wasn’t just vets; it was young guys,” Malone stated. “Torrey Craig gets his first career playoff start. He was in the G-League last year and he had that kind of game. Monte Morris was in the G-League last year and is playing great off the bench. Jamal Murray from Game 3 to Game 4 looked like a completely different player. He goes out and gets 24 points, six assists, and one turnvoer. You feel bad because you don’t talk about Nikola sometimes because you expect greatness from him every night. He was fantastic. And I think Will Barton, those are tough discussions. You’re taking a guy out of the starting lineup. This wasn’t about Will. It was about what I felt was in the best interest of our team, but Will gets 12 points off the bench and hits three (3-pointers).”
Regardless of the altruistic nature of the Nuggets offense, there was no one more impressive on Saturday night than Nikola Jokic.
“29 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and no turnovers,” Malone said as he articulated how outstanding Jokic was. “The guy is an incredible player and, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes you forget to mention him because you expect it every night.
When the Nuggets needed him most, Jokic managed to put together a stat line that only one other player in NBA history has accomplished. The only other player who has managed to reach 29+ points, 12+ rebounds and 8+ assists without committing a turnover was Baron Davis back in 2002 and Jokic accomplished that feat on the road in San Antonio in his fourth career playoff game when his Nuggets team desperately needed a win if they wanted to keep their chances at winning a playoff series intact.
Jokic was nothing short of an absolute superstar against the Spurs and Denver needs every last bit of his contributions on Saturday night.
“Nikola was fantastic tonight and he is our best player and he responded in a big way when we needed him to,” Malone said after the game.
In addition to the Serbian Stallion’s stellar stat line, Murray also had himself an massively important performance in Game 4 as he managed to accumulate 24 points on a hyper-efficient 8-of-14 shooting from the field and 3-of-5 from three-point distance in addition to dishing out six assists against just one single turnover.
“Jamal…I thought he was a lot more engaged,” Malone explained. “I thought he played a lot harder. I thought he played with a lot more urgency.”
What made Murray’s all-around game even more impressive is that it came after he struggled mightily for the first three games of the series. Murray was missing open shots, getting annihilated on defense, and struggled making good decisions in 11 of the 12 quarters played between the Nuggets and Spurs leading up to Game 4.
That led to Malone challenging his 22-year-old lead guard to step up and be the player he was during the regular season.
“Jamal Murray responded from Game 3 to 4,” Malone stated proudly.
It is safe to say that Murray rose to the occasion and then some on Saturday night in San Antonio.
Last, but not least, was Craig’s career-best night.
To overly simplify the game that Craig had, the Nuggets would not have been able to pull out their huge win in Game 4 without his contributions and Paul Millsap made sure to point that out.
“Unbelievable,” Millsap said when asked about Craig’s performance in his first-career start in the playoffs. “You know it is one thing when he brings his energy and also when he brings his shot — his offensive repertoire — to the game, (it) helps us a lot; tremendously. But his energy on the defensive end and his rebounding really sparked us and got us going.”
Craig was a defensive demon against the Spurs in Game 4. Yes, DeRozan still managed to score 19 points on 13 shots, but almost every shot taken against Craig was contested and difficult, but that is normal for Craig. He is the Nuggets defensive multi-tool that Malone utilizes in a multitude of ways. Still, that is not why Craig ended up with an appearance at the podium after the game had ended.
What made Craig so fantastic in Game 4 was the fact that he was so much more than just a defender. His shot-making ability was a massive advantage for Denver. Craig finished the night with 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting and and a career-best 5-of-7 from beyond the three-point arc. Oh, and Craig also managed to add in eight rebounds and two steals for good measure.
“We work on shooting everyday,” Craig said when asked how he stays confident in his shot. “We shoot around after every practice so it is just a matter of really following that. (Once) a couple go in, your confidence builds and by the time you know it, you hit two or three.”
Now, with the Nuggets Game 4 victory in San Antonio, the Nuggets have tied up the series at two wins apiece, took back homecourt advantage, and also snapped their 13-game losing streak against the Spurs when playing in AT&T Center and they did so by relying on their young core.
“That is what excites me — seeing all these guys step up in big moments,” Malone explained. “This is the first time they are all going through it and I think they have responded really, really well.
“Everybody stepped up, but I saw a confidence and a belief in one another that is necessary to come in here and win a game like we did.”
Now, the Nuggets will head back to Denver to take on San Antonio for Game 5 in the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center. With each team having two wins, the Nuggets and Spurs have now ventured into into a best-of-three series. Now, the first team to reach two wins will escape the first round and, if the Nuggets hope to find themselves on the right side of that equation, they will need to bring the same fire, passion, and intensity that they played with on Saturday night.
“The work is not done,” Malone explained. “The series is tied and there is a lot of game left to be played.”