In the disappointing aftermath of Sunday night’s Game 2, Nuggets coach Michael Malone asked his team if they knew why they’d suffered their first home loss of the postseason.
According to Malone, the answer wasn’t elusive. They knew what he was getting at.
“Let’s talk about effort,” Malone said after Miami seized Game 2 with a 111-108 win, snatching homecourt advantage in the process. “This is the NBA Finals, we are talking about effort; that’s a huge concern of mine.”
Malone tried to warn inquiring media tempted to deem the series over after Game 1 when he insisted the Nuggets didn’t play well. But Sunday reaffirmed the defensive lapses he’d seen when he professed concern. He knew Miami, which had been a great 3-point shooting team throughout the playoffs, wasn’t going to remain cold for long.
That effort he cited trickled into numerous alarming aspects of the night.
“We had guys out there that were just whether feeling sorry for themselves for not making shots or thinking they can just turn it on or off, this is not the preseason, this is not the regular season,” Malone said. “This is the NBA Finals. That to me is really, really perplexing, disappointing.”.
The Heat opened the first quarter on a 10-2 run, which was an early indictment of the starters’ engagement. Up 57-51 at halftime, the Nuggets squandered that cushion less than four minutes into the third quarter, conceding a 15-9 run due to lackadaisical, disconnected perimeter defense.
It took a herculean effort from Nikola Jokic in the third quarter – he scored 18 points to give the Nuggets a brief lead – but Denver didn’t approach the fourth quarter with any sense of urgency. A 13-2 run to start, propelled again by disengaged 3-point defense, foreshadowed an embarrassing defensive showing in the fourth quarter. Miami reeled off 36 points in the final quarter on 69% shooting. The Nuggets were less than 12 minutes away from a 2-0 lead before the wheels fell off.
“There was miscommunication, game-plan breakdowns, personnel breakdowns,” Malone said as he audited in the immediate aftermath what happened from the 3-point line, where Miami drained 17 of 35.
Max Strus and Gabe Vincent sunk four 3-pointers each. Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry sunk two each, as did Kevin Love. They were the result of slow rotations, lethargic closeouts, assignment breakdowns and disrespecting shooters.
“Those are guys that we are supposed to have a heightened awareness to,” Malone said. “As I mentioned after Game 1, the fact that they got 16 wide-open threes was concerning. They didn’t make them. So, we got lucky in Game 1. ”
In terms of discipline, they fouled jump shooters. In terms of awareness, they didn’t pick up their defensive assignments nearly high enough. Malone called for first contact at the “four-point line.”
Said Jamal Murray: “It was more discipline. It’s defeating when you’re giving up mistake after mistake, and it’s not them beating you, you’re giving them open dunks or open shots.”
Asked specifically about the team’s effort, Jeff Green’s words spoke volumes, conveying a frustration that permeated the entire locker room. A handful of starters, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, didn’t speak to media members after the game.
“It’s the (expletive) Finals, man,” Green said. “Our energy has to be better. We can’t come out like we did, and we have to be better.”
Jokic, despite his 41 points, said that aspect has to be non-negotiable.
“I mean, yes, of course that cannot be a question,” he said.