They’re playing for pride now. Assuming there’s a sliver of self-esteem buried deep inside the Nuggets that Kawhi Leonard hasn’t already curb-stomped into tapioca pudding.
“The same message will be what we used against Utah,” Denver coach Michael Malone said after a listless Game 4 loss has his Nuggets down 3-1 for the second time in two NBA Playoffs series. “It wasn’t that we have come back and win three games. It was, ‘Let’s win Game 5.’ And then after that, let’s win one at a time. Win (Game) 6. And win (Game) 7.
“So yes, we’ve done it. This is a different opponent, obviously. A very talented, deep team. But I think we do have confidence, being a resilient group. And being a team that when everyone else has written us off, we have found a way.”
Stranger things have happened. We’ve thrown dirt on the Nuggets before, only to have it kicked, triumphantly, right back into our faces.
Although let’s be frank, too: Trailing 3-1 to the Jazz is not the same climb as being down 3-1 to the Claw. In his career, Leonard’s been on squads with a 3-1 lead in an NBA postseason series five times before this week, and he’s yet to lose a single one of them.
Utah’s idea of defense is to rain treys on the other end of the floor while hoping that Rudy Gobert will clean up whatever varmints happen to slip past a gifted but small backcourt. The Clippers’ idea of defense is to force someone you don’t want taking the big shot into having to make the big shot — Gary Harris made them pay in Game 2, Jerami Grant has done the opposite in the two tilts since — while bashing your best snipers with a wooden mallet until their spirits break.
Jamal Murray looks broken.
Not permanently. Not irreparably. But damaged enough that Kawhi seems to have pitched a tent inside his noggin even when he isn’t already up in his grill. After demanding of himself to be better in Game 4 after just 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting in Game 3, the Blue Arrow was, but only barely: 6-for-15, four turnovers and 18 points.
Michael Porter Jr. looks broken.
Not insurmountably. Not irreversibly. But busted enough that the frustrations of not seeing the ball, the floor, or some combination of either left the rookie in a foul, candid mood late Wednesday. When asked why he didn’t score in the second half of Game 4 after dropping 15 in the first, the first-rounder replied:
“That’s up to the play-calling, the coaches and whose hands they want to put the ball in. We kept going to (Jokic) and (Murray), and they are two amazing players, but I just think to beat them we need to get more players involved … We can’t be predictable against that team.”
Can’t be predictable.
“I will probably talk to the coaches and tell them what I see, being out there on the floor,” Porter continued. “Just letting them know, ‘Look, they know what we’re doing.’”
They know what we’re doing.
So the pride question kicks in for Malone, now, too. Do you take constructive criticism in stride from a kid with all of 55 career NBA games and 11 postseason appearances under his belt? Or do you nail MPJ’s backside to the bench in Game 5, to heck with the consequences, in order to prove a point?
Either way, it feels like you’re going home soon, with uncomfortable questions among the souvenirs the Nuggets have to unpack once they’re back on the other side of the bubble.
Are MPJ, Murray and Nikola Jokic, for all their mojo, truly compatible on the floor at the same time, especially on the defensive end?
Is Malone your Mark Jackson? Or your Steve Kerr?
Is there room for that one-player-away that most pundits feel you need to get out of the second round?
A guy that, when Doc Rivers rolls Kawhi, Paul George and Patrick Beverley at you, still finds a way to get his? A guy who finishes what the Nuggets couldn’t in Game 3? A guy proud enough make sure a night like Wednesday never, ever happens again?
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