As the final seconds ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter of Game 3 between the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors, reality set in.
The Nuggets, despite their best efforts in Game 3, had fallen into a 3-0 hole in the first round of the playoffs; a virtually insurmountable deficit. Instead of an aura of confidence and unshakable belief that Denver could find a way to overcome such tough odds, as they had leading into Game 3, Malone and his team conveyed a somber acceptance of their circumstance.
Despite their fight, determination and resiliency, Denver just did not have the better team.
“I’ll say this. I could not be more proud of our group,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “I know it sounds weird because it was in a loss and there are no moral victories in the playoffs; I get that. But we gave ourselves a chance tonight. We did not do that in Golden State. We put outselves in a position late to beat a very good basketball team. Were we perfect? No. Did we make mistakes at times? Yes. But I love how we fought tonight. We stayed with it, we got down, things were getting away from us at times, but we stayed with it and stayed together. We kept fighting and battled.”
Now, despite the understanding that no team has ever come back from being down 3-0 in a playoff series, the Nuggets have to find a way to prepare for Game 4 which will be played in the Mile High City on their home floor.
“I asked our team, come Sunday, we have a decision to make. Are we going to roll over or are we going to fight like hell and send this back to Golden State? That is my hope,” Malone said of his Nuggets who are +2200 to win the series according to FanDuel Sportsbook. “If we fight like we did tonight, I am going to walk off that court very proud of the guys in that locker room.”
The Nuggets have never backed down regardless of the odds. Even being down 3-1 in two series in the bubble, they found a way to fight their way back and into the Western Conference Finals. They have flown in on the second night of back-to-backs with the minimum required eight players and defeated teams like the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks on their home courts. This Nuggets core knows they can win on any given night and they operate that way in every game they play.
So even with the odds stacked so heavily against them, the Nuggets are heading into Game 4 looking to win; regardless of the ultimate outcome of the series.
“I have been a fighter my whole life. I know how I will approach it and I expect everyone in that locker room to do the same..,” DeMarcus Cousins said. “I am a fighter. I will go out swinging. That is just who I am.”
While the Nuggets are not proclaiming a historic comeback is on the horizon, they are not treating this series as over and a foregone conclusion. They will continue to fight as long as they have a chance.
“It is not over. As long as we put in effort like we did today, we are going to be fine,” Nikola Jokic said. “They are a great team, but we have shown ourselves we can play with them and it can be interesting games. Just continue to do that.”
This is a roster of players and a coaching staff who have built their identity around team basketball and resiliency in the face of adversity. Those are core pillars of the Nuggets franchise and it has equipped them to play with confidence regardless of circumstance on any night. That has been true as long as Jokic and Malone have been in Denver.
“This specific group has no quit,” Aaron Gordon said. “We are going to fight and try to extend the series.
“All year long, we have been a resilient group and I expect us to bounce back.”
Plus, this same group also understands the bitter taste of being swept out of the postseason. Getting swept by the Phoenix Suns still haunts many of the Nuggets players and coaching staff today. So with that feeling in mind, Denver has no intention of letting the Suns come onto their home floor and sweep them out of the playoffs.
“We got swept against Phoenix last year,” Malone said. “That is the worst feeling in the world. It stays with you the whole offseason.”
So now there is nothing else to be said. It is up to the Nuggets to find their resolve and keep the Warriors from sweeping Denver on their home floor. It won’t be easy — Denver played plenty well enough to win in Game 3 and still came up short — and the Warriors might still walk away with a win, but so long as the Nuggets carry the same urgency and intensity into Game 4 as they did for Game 3, they will give themselves a chance to send the series back to San Francisco.
“Sunday afternoon? Alright. Skyrockets in flight; afternoon delight,” Malone joked with a smile on his face. “Knowing our group, we will be in there for a fight. I know I will be.”