Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone felt a bad kind of déjà vu as he watched his team fade during the second half of Monday night’s 122-105 loss to the Suns in Phoenix in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
After seeing his team get blown out by the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series, Malone lamented what he felt was his team’s “soft mentality” while watching the Nuggets — who led 58-57 at halftime — get outscored 65-47 in the final 24 minutes.
“This game to me was eerily similar to Game 1 against Portland,” Malone said after the loss to the Suns. “I think we had way too many breakdowns tonight from a coverage standpoint. I think seven of their 13 3s tonight were from the corners and a lot of that was missed assignments, not communicating. We gave up eight and-1s tonight, I think [we] had a soft mentality. You can’t give up eight and-1s in a playoff game. If you’re going to foul somebody, foul them, and not let them get the and-1.”
It was an assessment that several of his players agreed with.
“Soft, that’s a good way to put it,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. “Scared, that’s another way to play it. You could choose between them two words, either ‘soft’ or ‘scared,’ that’s what it felt like we were playing like. And then we was just breaking down. We were breaking down defensively, offensively we weren’t getting into what we needed to get into. We were letting them dictate our offense a little too much. Really just a lot of breakdowns.”
While Nuggets forward JaMychal Green also used the “soft” label, MVP favorite Nikola Jokic pushed back on the notion, believing that his team just needs to do a better job of dealing with Phoenix’s runs heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night.
“I don’t think so [that] we played soft,” Jokic said. “We have to do a better job, of course, handling the runs. I think in one moment they were on a 16-0 run. … When things aren’t going our way, we just need to be more decisive, I think. We need to know what we are doing as a group.”
Malone softened his initial assessment later in his postgame news conference with reporters, saying many in his group were “playing hard” and “competing,” but it was more of a frustration in the mentality the Nuggets had in allowing the Suns to impose their will on the game in a variety of areas.
“When we beat Portland in four games, we were the aggressor,” Malone said. “We were the more physical team, and that has to be the case. We’re undermanned. There’s a reason no one’s giving us a chance to win this series. We have to bring our best version of ourselves — tonight we didn’t get that from a lot and we’ll need it come Wednesday night.”
One of the reasons Malone still feels confident is because young forward Michael Porter Jr. is expected to play in Game 2, despite being limited in the second half because of a back issue suffered at the end of the first half.
Malone said he limited Porter’s minutes in the second half because he could tell the back issue was bothering Porter, and wanted to try and keep him fresh for what he hopes will be a long series. Even what appears to be a small setback is something to keep an eye on given Porter’s history of back issues.
“I’m always concerned when I see a guy obviously having a wrap on his back,” Malone said. “I didn’t think in that second half Michael was moving the way that I’m used to seeing him move. But I just spoke to him, I think he just tweaked it a little bit. He’ll get some treatment tonight, all day [Tuesday], and I fully expect Michael to be ready to go come Wednesday.”