“I’ll go to war with that kid any day.”
Those were the fiery words Nuggets head coach Michael Malone uttered to the media on Wednesday night after his team fell to the Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals, letting everyone in the room and watching on television know what he thought about the way one of his players – Torrey Craig – battled during the defeat.
The forward had left the game in the first half, walking to the locker room with several blood-soaked towels covering his face. A bump from Portland’s Zach Collins, followed by a collision with teammate Monte Morris’ knee, left Craig with a bruised and battered nose.
It was an ugly scene, one the TNT commentators thought would end the night for one of the Nuggets crucial role players. But he returned in the third quarter, wearing a protective mask, to try to help spark a Denver rally.
While the Nuggets couldn’t quite come back to beat the Blazers, they may have discovered something important in the loss. Yes, they now sit 1-1 in the best-of-seven series, but the fact that Malone’s team perhaps found the grittiness, heart and resolve needed in the postseason could ultimately be more beneficial in the long run than an easy victory would have been.
Sure, moral victories are for losers. But this is about more than that; it’s about learning what it takes to succeed beyond the regular season.
In the series opener, Denver ran up and down the floor, cut through the lane for easy baskets and pretty much did whatever they wanted to do offensively en route to a 121-113 victory. Game 2 was just the opposite.
To slow down the Nuggets, especially center Nikola Jokic, Portland decided to play a physical brand of basketball. They double- and triple-teamed Denver’s offensive catalyst, contested every shot, threw elbows, stuck out knees and generally got a little dirty; that’s what desperate teams do.
And it worked.
In the first half, the Nuggets offense couldn’t get anything going, scoring just 35 points and missing shot after shot, in what was one of their worst performances of the season. After intermission, Denver’s shooting wasn’t much better, but they managed to claw their way back into the game by matching Portland’s scrappy play.
Perhaps they were motivated by Craig’s return. Maybe they were tired of getting pushed around. Whatever the reason, Malone’s team turned up the intensity after halftime.
The fourth quarter alone saw the Nuggets grab 14 offensive rebounds, giving them multiple chances to hit a big shot that would turn the tide of the game. Despite the additional opportunities, however, Denver couldn’t create that electrifying moment that has so often been their calling card this season, especially at Pepsi Center.
“I was extremely proud of our guys in the second half,” Malone said about his team’s effort. “We fought.”
He meant it, both literally and figuratively.
Malone loved the toughness Craig showed by returning to the game, calling the defensive stopper the “unsung hero” of the game. The head coach also admired the way Jamal Murray battled through a bad quad, an injury that stemmed from the knee of Spurs center Jakob Poeltl on a borderline-dirty screen set in Game 6 of the first round. He also liked the way his team didn’t quit, as they continued to crash the boards despite trailing by double-digits most of the night.
And while he might not admit it, Malone probably also liked the way Murray, Gary Harris and other Nuggets got into a shoving match with Enes Kanter late in the game. When the Trail Blazers center knocked Craig to the floor after a made free throw, Denver’s guards immediately let him know they wouldn’t stand for that kind of play. It turned into a minor skirmish at midcourt.
Perhaps it was bravado on the part of the Nuggets, blowing off some steam at the end of a frustrating night. But that’s the kind of mentality they’ll need in Portland this weekend if they hope to avoid falling into a 3-1 hole in the series.
Kanter was been physical with Jokic on Wednesday night, something he’ll surely ratchet up even more on his home court. He’s also knocked plenty of other Nuggets around, particularly via vicious backcourt picks that Denver’s guards didn’t seen coming. It’s all about sending a message and setting a tone, something the big man will continue to try to do.
“I like that; that’s what the playoffs are all about,” Kanter said after Game 2 when asked about the series suddenly taking a physical turn.
Like it or not, that’s certainly true. By and large, teams who succeed in the postseason are able to withstand the punishment that is a part of playoff basketball.
The Nuggets were lulled to sleep by the way Game 1 unfolded. Hopefully, the second act of the series woke them up.
While they don’t have to suddenly turn into the “Bad Boys” Pistons of the 1980s or Pat Riley’s Knicks of the ’90s, they do need to match the Blazers toughness from the opening tipoff. They need 48 minutes of the grittiness exhibited by Murray, Harris and others at times in Game 2; they need a roster full of players showing the courage displayed by Craig.
Malone said he’d go to war with his bloodied forward. Well, in the context of a basketball game, that’s exactly what the Nuggets are walking into this weekend in Portland.
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