Even after seeing his team fall into a 3-0 hole during a 116-102 Game 3 loss to the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference semifinals on Friday night, Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone remains hopeful that his team will not have its season ended by a sweep on Sunday.
“I know for myself, I can’t speak for anyone else, the last thing I want to see is the Phoenix Suns pushing a broom across our court after Game 4,” Malone said. “We have had a tremendous season, tremendous. I said going into this year you can’t judge a season by the end result. We got to the Western Conference finals last year, certain things can happen, but we can have a better season this year but not get as far.
“But the one thing I don’t want is for us to go out just quietly into that good night. I hope we show some real fight and resolve and force that series to go back to Phoenix for a Game 5.”
Malone garnered attention after Denver’s Game 2 loss when he said he felt his team “quit” while getting outplayed by the Suns in the second half for the second game in a row.
He seemed more pleased with his team’s effort after Game 3, taking solace in the fact that his young group dug itself out of a 3-1 hole twice during last season’s bubble playoffs.
“As far as the 3-0 deficit, yes, history is not on our side,” Malone said. “But you know what? We have rewritten history the last couple of years. When we were down 3-1 twice last year, it was never about trying to win three more games. It was about winning the next game, winning the first quarter, winning the second quarter, and that’s got to be our mindset.”
The Nuggets also need to find a stronger resolve as it pertains to guarding All-Star Chris Paul, who has been torching the Nuggets all series. That continued Friday, when Paul had 27 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds in 37 minutes.
Paul’s stabilizing presence has been a huge reason why the Suns are a game away from ending Denver’s season. He has scored 30 points on 12-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3-point range, with eight assists and no turnovers combined in the three fourth quarters in this series, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“We just got to make it more difficult on him,” Nuggets guard Monte Morris said. “He’s a Hall of Fame point guard, top five easily, still playing in the NBA. … He’s getting everybody involved. CP is a tough cover for anybody, but we have to just stick to our game plan and try to execute it the best way we can.
Morris added: “S—, it’s 3-0. We got to all lay it out there. We ain’t got nothing to lose. But we’re definitely not trying to get swept going into the offseason on our home court. That feeling wouldn’t sit well.”
About the only feeling that did sit well for the Nuggets centered around center Nikola Jokic, who received his MVP trophy before Friday’s game and then went out and scored 32 points, grabbed 20 rebounds and dished out 10 assists. Jokic joined Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to ever have 30 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“It was a special moment,” Jokic said. “I enjoyed the moment. I wish that my wife could be here and my parents. I had my teammates behind me because this is my trophy, but it’s because of all of them. So I need to thank them.”
If Jokic and the Nuggets were to lose Sunday’s Game 4, he would become just the fifth MVP in league history to be swept out of a playoff series, joining Magic Johnson (1989 finals), Moses Malone (1979 first round), Abdul-Jabbar (1977 conference finals) and Wes Unseld (1969 conference semifinals).
“We’ve experienced one [closeout game] already,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “Knowing those guys aren’t going to give up. They’ve got the MVP of the league over there, they’re well coached by Mike Malone and they’ve got some players that play very hard. Nobody ever wants their season to end, so we know they’re going to give it their shot and we’re prepared for that.”
Malone said he is hoping that his team will be able to right itself before it’s too late.
“My only hope is that we haven’t let go of the rope because of what history tells us,” Malone said. “My only hope is that come Sunday afternoon/evening, whenever that game is, our guys show up and fight. I think they deserve it, their teammates deserve that, and our fans deserve that, to go out there and leave it all on the line and you can walk off the floor with your head held high.”
ESPN’s Royce Young contributed to this report.