Ira Winderman: An NBA Finals in which Nuggets coach is coaxing effort, Heat coach creating solutions

Tribune Content Agency

DENVER — Postgame media sessions during the NBA Finals are conducted in separate rooms for each of the teams. So it’s not a case, as it used to be, of one coach picking up on the theme of the other as he waits in the wings.

Sunday night, in the wake of the Miami Heat’s 111-108 victory at Ball Arena in Denver, the messages could not have been more divergent, speaking volumes of the mindset of the teams that are now tied 1-1 in this best-of-seven series than continues Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. at Kaseya Center.

The Denver Nuggets are a team with star power, Nikola Jokic a two-time MVP who arguably this season should have become a three-time MVP, Jamal Murray often cast as the most underappreciated star in the league, Aaron Gordon touted this past week as if he stands as the game’s ultimate two-way wing.

And yet there was Nuggets coach Michael Malone lamenting, of all things at this time of year . . . effort.

“Let’s talk about effort,” he opened his postgame comments. “This is the NBA Finals. We are talking about effort — that’s a huge concern of mine.”

Malone didn’t stop there, no matter that the first two questions were not on that topic.

“You guys probably thought I was just making up some storyline after Game 1 when I said we didn’t play well,” he continued of that Thursday Nuggets victory. “We didn’t play well. Tonight, the starting lineup to start the game, it was 10-2 Miami. Start of the third quarter, they scored 11 points in two minutes and 10 seconds. 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. This is the NBA Finals. That to me is really, really perplexing, disappointing.”

Across the building, in a makeshift interview area beside forklifts, Erik Spoelstra was extolling the effort of the Heat to yet again strip homecourt advantage from a higher-seeded opponent.

But Spoelstra also is not Pat Riley, does not slam the interview table for dramatic effect after losses, is as equally measured in defeat as in victory (including remarkably so in the wake of Derrick White’s crushing winning putback for the Celtics with one-tenth of a second remaining in Game 6 of the East finals).

No, in his interview session Sunday, Spoelstra instead turned inward, to a degree blaming himself for a misstep in Thursday’s Game 1 loss.

In that game, with the Heat riding the euphoria of their Game 7 victory in Boston three days earlier, Spoelstra sent out the same lineup that defeated the Celtics so emphatically.

The Heat then immediately were cut down to size by the bigger, bulkier Nuggets, talk immediately turning to a potential Denver sweep.

Almost immediately, Spoelstra recognized he got caught in the moment.

So when he was asked about moving Kevin Love back into the starting lineup Sunday and Caleb Martin back to the bench, the lineup he had gone with prior to his change in Game 6 to match up with the Celtics’ downsized lineup, Spoelstra set things straight.

“I wouldn’t say that it was a lineup change,” he said. “I get what you’re saying. We just went back to our original lineup. We went with this lineup for 14 games. I didn’t have the foresight . . . I didn’t . . . That’s on me.

“We had to make an adjustment in that Boston series, and that really was necessary and it worked. Then we’re facing a new opponent that we don’t really know, and so we just went with what finished that previous series.”

So at the very moment the Nuggets’ Malone was castigating his players’ effort, Spoelstra was turning introspective about his lack of forethought.

“But we have been 10-4, 11-4 now with this lineup,” Spoelstra said of Love as playoff starter. “Clearly we needed that size and veteran experience and physicality that K-Love brings.”

Spoelstra tried to scan Love’s minutes in the stat sheet, a modest 22:13, but at 52 years old, didn’t have the means at that moment.

“I don’t know how many minutes,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t have my glasses, so I don’t know the stats.”

But he knew what was necessary to make his team better, to reward his players’ unceasing effort.

On the other side of the building, the Nuggets’ Malone was attempting to coax effort.

In June.

In the NBA Finals.

Steps from that Nuggets’ interview room, Love took time in the Heat locker room to discuss effort that is unceasing in part because of a coach who looks inward to turn out greater possibilities.

“He’s a huge factor,” Love said. “Michael Malone is a hell of a coach, too. But Coach Spo, having been here and having a storied and decorated career, it’s a beautiful thing to have him on that sideline.

“That trust works both ways with us. It’s a beautiful thing. You look over there during timeouts, halftime, pregame, prep, all that stuff is a 10 out of 10 with our coaching staff and Coach Spo.”