The Nuggets say they’ve moved past the in-fighting and bickering that overshadowed their ugly Game 2 loss Monday night in San Francisco.
“That was out of the system before we got on that plane in Golden State,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Wednesday’s practice, and ahead of Game 3 of their first-round playoff series against the Warriors on Thursday night.
Amid Golden State’s 44-point, third-quarter eruption, cameras caught DeMarcus Cousins and Will Barton jawing at each other on Denver’s sideline.
Numerous players said the incident stemmed from the frustration of getting embarrassed and was, ultimately, coming from a good place. The players-only meeting that followed late Monday night helped get everyone “on the same page,” according to Austin Rivers.
But beyond their internal strife, the Nuggets still have a three-headed monster from Golden State to contend with. Thus far, they’ve been unable to corral Jordan Poole (59 points in two games), Steph Curry (50) or Klay Thompson (40), nor have they been able to unleash an efficient Nikola Jokic.
Now they are running out of time. A loss in Game 3 would put the Nuggets in a 3-0 hole and effectively end the series, regardless of how long it takes.
“We are desperate, but we’re not going to play that way,” Rivers said.
Malone, Rivers and JaMychal Green all underscored one obvious area of change. Through the first two games, the Warriors have been far too comfortable in settling into their offensive actions and getting to whatever shot they want. Green said one point of emphasis was to be the aggressor.
“We need everybody to set a tone,” Green said. “You just need everybody to go out there and be physical, hit somebody. You know, we can’t be the ones getting hit. Can’t be the ones crying and asking for fouls. We got to go and play through all that.”
Functionally, that means fighting over screens, winning the 50-50 balls, communicating on switches and hustling in transition. But the defense, exposed and gashed amid Golden State’s punishing runs, has also been a product of ineffective offense.
Whether it’s with turnovers (26 through two games) or an inability to spread the floor, the Nuggets have rarely put Golden State on its heels despite having one of the most offensively gifted players in the NBA. Through two games, Jokic is just 21-of-45 shooting for 51 points and only 10 assists.
“I mean, Draymond Green is literally not guarding anybody,” Malone said. “He is a free safety out there. And so we have to, and players he’s guarding, have to find a way to be effective and make them pay for doing that. And until we do, it’s gonna be really hard for Nikola to get off when he’s got three guys around him and they’re saying, ‘We’re gonna make one of you other guys beat us.’”
Malone is referring to Aaron Gordon and Jeff Green, who’ve both been completely held in check thus far. In two games, they’ve combined for 25 points and 16 rebounds total. Malone said he talked to Gordon on Wednesday about opening up his game and finding other ways for him to contribute if the offense isn’t going to be there.
“You got to help yourself,” Malone said. “I mean, like, and Aaron’s terrific in transition, but we’re not getting stops. … You know, so we talked with Aaron today, different ways that we can counter how they’re guarding him, and how he can not only help himself, but if they’re not going to guard him, he can also help his teammates as well.”
The message is the same one that Green echoed and applies on either end of the court.
“I think it starts with an aggression level,” Malone said. “Be aggressive. I mean, we got guys catching the ball in the paint, not even looking at the rim, kicking it out to the perimeter. … The most aggressive team is going to win and they have been the most aggressive team. They have been the more physical team so until that changes, we have no chance in hell of winning a game in the series.”