Michael Malone has dismissed claims that Denver will easily beat the Miami Heat to win their first ever NBA championship, as the Nuggets head coach expects the series to be ‘the biggest challenge of our lives’.
‘Forget the eighth seed stuff – they beat Milwaukee four to one,’ Malone said before Thursday’s opening game at 8.30 p.m. ET at Ball Arena.
‘You get to the NBA Finals, it’s not about seeding anymore. And for those that are thinking that this is going to be an easy series – I don’t even know what to say to you.
‘This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals. We’re trying to win the first NBA championship in franchise history, and it’s going to be the hardest thing that we’ve ever done, which is the way it should be.’
The Nuggets have earned somewhat of a break from basketball since completing their sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals on May 22.
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone claims that seeding does not matter in the NBA Finals
Malone lifts the Western Conference Championship Trophy after Denver swept the Lakers, 4-0
However, Nikola Jokic and Co. were able to shift their focus to the Heat and a game plan to contain Jimmy Butler after Miami emerged victorious from its elimination game against the Boston Celtics on Tuesday.
Butler – a six-time All-Star, who produced a game-high 28 points in Game 7 – has been a key figure in an injury-battered Heat rotation, with star guard Tyler Herro eying a return after fracturing his hand in the first round.
‘Not surprising that they would win a playoff series and compete moving forward, but no matter what their team looked like, losing key players, I wouldn’t pick that team to wind up as one of the last two standing,’ ABC NBA Finals analyst Mark Jackson told reporters.
‘It says a lot about their competitive spirit, their culture.’
‘When I look at Jimmy Butler, what separates him from most players is the drive — the competitive spirit within him, a relentless attack,’ Malone said. ‘It was really cool seeing the press conference they showed from last year when they lost and how everything he talked about in that moment kind of came to fruition a year later, and he has this team back in the Finals.
‘What makes Jimmy hard to guard is, we know he’s talented, he’s big, he’s strong, he can get to his spots on the court, but he has the gift of drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. But he’s a big-moment player. He’s not scared. He’s tough. He’s relentless, and he’s a warrior.’
The Nuggets will have to figure out a game plan to contain Heat star Jimmy Butler offensively
The Nuggets are one of six teams who have never won an NBA title. This is their first championship series appearance since losing to Julius Erving and the New York Nets in 1976, after which the wonderful and wacky ABA was disbanded.
‘We’ve got the utmost respect for them. They fight and they scrap, they have no quit in them,’ Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said of the Heat. ‘Jimmy is a difficult cover for different reasons than the guys I’ve guarded in the past like KD, LeBron, KAT.
‘Jimmy does everything. He does all the intangible things. He gets out in transition. He gets cuts. He gets offensive rebounds. He gets backdoors. He gets spinouts. He does a lot of the game within the game, as well as being really skilled. He’s a difficult cover.
Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon will be tasked with defending Butler after guarding LeBron
Asked what it’ll take to make sure the 33-year-old has a few bad games in the finals, Gordon added: ‘Just make it tough for him, play without fouling to the best of my ability and just compete.
‘He’s been going crazy. I don’t really set targets for like [how many] points [to hold him to]. I just want to make it as difficult as I possibly can for him all night long for 48, through an entire series.
‘[…] If he gets to his 27 [point] mark but he takes however many shots, it’s a win.’
Acquired in exchange for RJ Hampton, Gary Harris and a first-round pick in March 2021, Gordon, who’s averaging 16.3 points a game on 56.4 percent overall shooting this season, said that he and his teammates have to stay professional if they want to emerge as winners of basketball’s biggest prize, echoing his head coach’s remarks.
‘We’re not looking at the seeding or the story around it,’ said the 28-year-old. ‘This is a very talented basketball team, professional basketball team, and all those guys over there got go game. So we respect it.’