Michael Malone can finally answer his critics in pivotal Game 2

May 6, 2024, 5:57 AM

Welp, now we’re going to find out. The debate is going to get settled once and for all.

Was Michael Malone simply along for the ride last year, playing the role of Ron Turcotte aboard Secretariat, and coatailing his way to glory? Or did the Nuggets head coach play a pivotal role in the franchise’s first championship?

Twelve months ago, everything went Denver’s way in the postseason. They had home-court advantage in every round and boasted a better roster than every opponent.

Malone created an underdog mentality that his team bought into. And he got out of the way, going with the same eight-man rotation in all 20 games.

And it worked. The Nuggets went 16-4 en route to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. They never trailed in a series and were only tied twice after Game 1s.

Malone deserves credit for the run. Some coaches wouldn’t be able to withstand the temptation to tinker. It wasn’t broke, however, so Denver’s head coach didn’t try to fix it.

But he was also a little lucky. The Nuggets had the second-easiest route possible a title. They played No. 8, 4, 7 and 8 seeds along the way. Getting a No. 5 in the second round is the only way to have a smoother path.

They beat Minnesota in four. Phoenix took them to six, but were toast once Chris Paul got hurt. They swept the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals and then avoided the Celtics, Bucks and Sixers in the NBA Finals, drawing the upstart Heat.

Yes, the Nuggets only lost one home game in the playoffs, dropping Game 2 at Ball Arena to Miami. But there weren’t a lot of challenges along the way.

Game 5 at home against the Suns was pressure packed. So was Game 3 in Miami. Those were the only times Denver faced the prospect of falling behind in a series. They answered the bell both times.

During their title defense, however, things have changed. After losing Game 1 at home to the Timberwolves on Saturday night, the Nuggets are trailing in the second-round series.

They face what feels like a must-win on Monday night. An 0-2 hole would be hard to dig out of. And they have question marks.

Denver had no answer for Anthony Edwards in Game 1. The Minnesota guard was the best player on the court, including Nikola Jokic, going for 43 points. He thoroughly outplayed the Nuggets backcourt, making Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope look helpless at times.

The T-Wolves size also caused havoc. Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns were a presence inside, as Denver was outrebounded by eight and ourscored in the paint by 10.

And Naz Reid was the best bench player in the game. The backup big man scored 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, exploiting the Nuggets lack of depth, particularly inside.

Michael Malone is going to have to make some adjustments. And his ability to do so remains a mystery.

Outside of the bubble, the coach has been at a loss for answers in playoff series where he didn’t have the clear advantage. He had nothing for the Suns in 2021, getting swept. And he didn’t try anything different in 2022 against the Warriors, losing in five.

This time around, he going to have to do better. Malone is going to have to find a way to avoid what prevented his team from winning Game 1.

The Nuggets looked listless and ill-prepared at the beginning of the game, falling behind 18-4. They looked clueless in the second half, surrendering 66 points to the Timberwolves, allowing Minnesota to shoot 71 percent from the field.

How do they slow down Edwards? How do they adjust to mitigate the size disadvantage? How do they prevent their bench from being an Achilles heel?

Malone might just trust his guys. He might see Saturday night as an aberration.

If he does and Denver loses again, it’ll prove that he was just along for the ride last year. Pushing buttons and still coming up short will provide the same answer.

Game 2 is big for the Nuggets. It’s also big for Malone.

The Nuggets head coach can prove his worth. These are the types of games where great coaches show their value.

It’s answer time. Which camp was right about Michael Malone?

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