BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Somewhere over Ohio, Nuggets coach Michael Malone found some enlightenment.
As the Nuggets bounced from the Midwest to New York amid the start of their latest six-game road trip, it dawned on Malone that something about this season wasn’t the same as his previous two decades in the NBA.
The veteran coach realized that the COVID-crunched schedule had all-but eliminated practice times. The only reason the Nuggets were in Brooklyn on Wednesday night for their 124-118 win over the Nets – the team’s third trip to New York in less than two months – was to make up a postponed game. Which meant a six-game road trip instead of five, and three games in four nights instead of a rare, extended stay in New Orleans.
Malone reasoned that he was getting unnecessarily upset with his team for defensive mistakes or other simple fixes that often come with practice time. In fact, in poring over game film, he spotted the same miscues with other teams, too.
“When you don’t have that (practice), sometimes it’s infuriating,” he said. “I just gotta calm the hell down.”
All you need to do is keep one eye trained on the action and one eye on Malone to get a pulse for what the team’s huddles sound like. The fiery coach is not subtle. He’ll dip his face into his hands, lean back and stare at the ceiling or sometimes just turn his back to the action in disgust. The tells occurred several times at Barclay’s Center on Wednesday night.
But in the lighter moments after Wednesday’s win, the team’s third in a row and eighth in its last 11, Malone acknowledged that he needs to recalibrate at times.
“Enjoy the wins,” he said. “Was it pretty? Did we play great? Could we have been better? Of course we could.”
It’s a lesson team president Tim Connelly is constantly harping on. Buried in the trenches of the nightly schedule, it’s hard to see a bigger picture, for anyone, let alone a coach so invested in his team’s result.
Which brought him to halftime of Wednesday night, with his team trailing by 11 to the skeleton Nets. Kevin Durant hadn’t splashed jumpers, Kyrie Irving hadn’t criss-crossed defenders and James Harden hadn’t bullied his way to the free-throw line. The Nets’ Big 3 were all out.
Instead of laying into his team, something he said he was tired of doing, he challenged them. He put the onus on their effort, and the Nuggets responded. Their 70-53 second half was a resounding affirmation of his decision to let his players dictate the result.
Austin Rivers came alive, skipping into timeouts and jousting with the crowd, in a way that energized Denver on the second night of a back-to-back. His 25 points and seven 3-pointers were a beautiful reminder that on a team as unselfish as the Nuggets, almost anyone has the potential to go off.
And Rivers, a 10-year veteran who’s seen the business end of the NBA more than once, knows how much harder this season is than most. He’s not apologizing for scraping out a victory against veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge or Patty Mills or a promising rookie like Cam Thomas.
“We’re taking wins,” Rivers said. “We’re not judging the wins.”
When you have Nikola Jokic as your centerpiece, it’s generally not the offense that needs addressing. Rivers said the team is well aware the slippages have come on defense, which is where the missing practice time would be vital. But that’s not an option at the moment.
“Worry about the lessons after, but win first,” said Will Barton, whose 21-point, 10-rebound effort came one night after he rested against Detroit.
As he has on several occasions, Malone reiterated how proud he was of his team’s record (26-21) despite their numerous pitfalls this season. As impressive as it’s been in the greater context of the season, Barton wasn’t ready to rest on their laurels.
“We got the MVP,” Barton said. “We got me, we got AG. We’ve still got a lot of good role players. Winning is still expected in my mind.”