Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone had a pointed message to his team after watching the eighth-seeded Heat eliminate the second-seeded Boston Celtics and advance to the NBA Finals:
“As I told our team, forget the eighth seed stuff. They beat Milwaukee 4 to 1, who had the most wins in the NBA. They beat Boston 4 to 3, the team that had the second most wins in the NBA this year. When you get to the NBA Finals, it’s not about seeding any more,” Malone said on Tuesday, as his team prepared for Game 1 of the Heat-Nuggets Finals on Thursday (8:30 p.m., ABC).
“For those thinking this is going to be an easy series, I don’t know what to say to you people. This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. It’s the NBA Finals. You’re trying to win the first NBA championship in franchise history. It’s going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done.”
Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon has heeded those words.
“We’re not looking at the seeding,” Gordon said. “[The Heat] is a very professional basketball team. All those guys have game. We have the utmost respect for them. They fight, they scrap, they have no quit in a 48-minute game. They play fearless, they play disciplined. They’re well coached and have some guys that have been there before, have some guys with chips on their shoulder.”
Forward Jeff Green said Erik Spoelstra allows players to thrive and that the Heat has “created a culture. It’s their way. It works. They’ve established something that has been beneficial for them, has gotten them to places over and over that other teams haven’t.”
Malone said “what jumps out to me” about the Heat is “they’re leading the playoffs in points off turnovers, close to 20 a night, after 18 games played. That’s pretty impressive. And we’re No. 1 in fewest points allowed off of our turnovers. We can’t turn the ball over. We know how good they are on the defensive end. These are the two best three-point shooting teams in the playoffs. They’re just ahead of us at 39 percent.”
As for guarding Jimmy Butler, Malone said mixing it up is the key.
“With a guy like Jimmy, you got to give him different looks,” Malone said. “You cannot guard him with the same scheme over a game or series. You have to keep him off the foul line; he’s third in the playoffs in free throw attempts per game.
“When I look at Jimmy, what separates him from most players is the drive, competitive spirit within him, the relentless attack. He’s big, strong, can get to his spots on the court. He has a gift of drawing fouls and getting to the line. He’s a big moment player, not scared, he’s relentless and he’s a warrior.
“Like [Milwaukee’s] Jrue Holiday said, it didn’t matter who was guarding him. Jimmy was going to get where he wanted to go. It’s not all on Aaron Gordon. It’s on all of us to give him different looks.”
Gordon said “Jimmy does everything, does all the intangible things. He gets out in transition, cuts, gets offensive rebounds,.. as well as being really skilled. Make it tough on him. Play without fouling to the best of my ability.”
Denver’s high altitude can create problems for opponents, and Malone said “getting altitude into this series while we’re home is really important. We have to continue to use it to our advantage.”
Gordon said the altitude is an advantage but that the Heat “is full of fighters. They’re excuse-less. They will not use that as an excuse. Miami is the best team out of the East.”