Malone’s Moment: In the end, the Nuggets coach seizes the series

Head coach Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets reacts against the Miami Heat at HP Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 01, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Kevin C. Cox-Pool Photo

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t high-flying or high-scoring or highly entertaining (if you lived anywhere but Denver or Salt Lake City).

But it had to be exactly the kind of game – and win – that Michael Malone lives for.

As Utah takes that L on the way out (of the Bubble), credit Malone for the win. The Nuggets – in case you’d turned your attention elsewhere sometime last week – are advancing. From 1-3 to 4-3, and it’s on to the Clippers.

If anyone has been critical of Malone, it’s been yours truly. Following Game 4’s two-point loss, a defeat that seemed fatal at the time, I penned that the Nuggets were “certainly not winning three-straight” and I’ve said more than once that I’d be glad to eat my words if they did.

Salt? Ehem… Can someone please pass the salt?

It’s easy, and justified, to credit Jamal Murray for the improbably comeback. After all, the fourth-year guard whose coming out party included two 50-point games, as well as a 42- and 36-point effort, was nothing short of spectacular. Murray’s assault on the Jazz in Game 6 could one day go down as the game this star was born.

One wouldn’t be wrong in pointing toward Nikola Jokic, either. After all, the silent Serb “quietly” put up three double-doubles and a scoring average of 26.3 across the series. It was Jokic, too, who took the reins in Game 7, scoring 30 points including the game winning basket. Flashy or not, Jokic always – always – brings a unique skillset to the Nuggets.

But in an 80-78 game, even the most prolific of scorers can’t pat themselves on the back too hard. This game was decided by defense, and neither Murray nor Donovan Mitchell (who also had two 50+point games) contributed anything close to what they had throughout the series. The series in general was a scoring bonanza – both teams were simply lighting up the scoreboard – up until the moment they didn’t

Murray and Mitchell combined for 475 total points in the series (and were undeniably the story of the series in general), but neither one was particularly great in the first round finale. Despite the 254 points scored by Mitchell in the series– the third most in NBA history – it was the 22 points he scored in Game 7 that stood out. As in, he was held to 22 in Game 7.

For most any player in the NBA, a 22-point effort is far from disappointing. But for the Nuggets, holding Mitchell to “just” 22 was the difference. After all, their defensive effort in Game 7 resulted in only 78 total points from the Jazz and Mitchell scoring 16 points below his series average; the Nuggets squeaked out a win by just two points. By all accounts, Game 7 was absolutely nothing like the previous six.

To be fair, neither Malone nor Utah coach Quin Snyder could afford to let Mitchell or Murray do their thing – that would have been a passive approach to advancing. As such, both coaches decided the best path toward victory would be to try their best to stop the other team’s best scorer. That’s a tough task, but relatively speaking, the effort was successful for both coaches.

But Malone knew that if he could remove Mitchell (or at least hold him to a reasonable output), the Jazz lacked answers. On the flip side, Malone still had Nokic, who’d become overshadowed by Murray’s magic. The Jazz had no answer for the Joker.

In the end, the coach who constantly preaches defense – the coach who was hired because of his defensive philosophies – advanced because of defense.

Beyond the defensive effort in Game 7, Malone should also be commended for somehow convincing this team that they could become the 12th team in NBA history to overcome a 1-3 playoff deficit. Practically anyone who watched Game 4 would have come to the same concussion: The Nuggets are done.

Except Malone.

He never thought that.

If there’s a fair criticism of Malone, it might be that seven games were too many, that his team should have, could have, won in fewer. And while we (see me) criticized the Nuggets for tanking in order to play the Jazz instead of the Mavericks, there’s only one thing that matters now: It worked.

Last night in the Bubble, the Nuggets won the game, and ultimately the series, with defense.

Credit their coach for the win.