DENVER — On the eve of the biggest game in Denver Nuggets franchise history, coach Michael Malone had a message for his team.
Malone wants the Nuggets to turn the clock back to 2020 — when they twice overcame a 3-1 series deficit in the Orlando bubble, first to the Utah Jazz in the first round and then to the LA Clippers in the conference semifinals. As the Nuggets try to win their first NBA championship in their 47th season Monday night against the Miami Heat, Malone wants his team to play with that same level of desperation — despite the fact that this time around they hold a 3-1 advantage, instead of being down in the series.
“My biggest concern going into any close-out game is human nature and fighting against that,” Malone said Sunday ahead of Game 5. “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.
“We know anything is possible [down 3-1]. That’s why my message to our team 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.”
The Nuggets lost their first close-out opportunity of this postseason in Game 4 at Minnesota in the first round. After that, they didn’t waste their next elimination opportunities, closing out the Timberwolves in Game 5, beating the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the second round and sending the Los Angeles Lakers home in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
After winning two straight Finals games in Miami, Nikola Jokic said the Nuggets were zeroed in during their practice in Denver.
“We are going to approach it as a must-win game,” Jokic said Sunday. “I know it’s a big opportunity, and I think everybody knows. By reflection of the practice today, how everybody was locked in, I think we are going to be ready.”
History is on the Nuggets’ side: Of the 36 teams to go up 3-1 in the NBA Finals, only one — the 2016 Golden State Warriors — has blown a 3-1 lead.
Still, Denver has never been in this position. The Nuggets have gone 46 seasons without a title, the most prior to winning a championship in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers snapped a 45-season drought when they came back to beat those Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.
But Jamal Murray has long believed that Denver’s championship time would come. Injuries to Murray and Michael Porter Jr. have derailed the Nuggets since reaching the Western Conference finals in the Orlando bubble.
Now healthy, a confident Murray said the Nuggets are ready to win the title.
“It’s long before we made it here that I thought this was going to happen,” Murray said. “I had a belief of being in the playoffs before, having the experience, seeing the team and the chemistry grow, having the same core my whole career, that’s when I saw it. That’s when I believed it.
“To be here just kind of rounds it out and shows that when we are given the right circumstances and everybody healthy, God willing, we can do it. When we’re playing our best basketball, we are a very hard team to stop.”
The Nuggets have handled every challenge that has come their way this postseason. Now comes the final test — closing out a Miami team that has repeatedly refused to allow its season to end.
Malone likes his chances if the Nuggets can rediscover that desperation that worked so well for them in the bubble before adversity hit the franchise.
“This team has been through a lot,” Malone said. “The last two years, no Jamal Murray; last season, no Michael Porter. To get back healthy and add some key pieces, this is a team that has been tested before and I think is really built for this moment.”