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June 1, 2023

Michael Malone

Denver Nuggets

Game 1: Postgame

Nuggets 104, Heat 93

Q. Michael, I think you guys allowed 63 points defensively through three quarters. Outside of that fourth quarter, what did you like the most about the defense tonight?

MICHAEL MALONE: Well, there were a lot of things that I liked. To hold that team to 93 points, only 40 from the field, 33 from the three-point line, which is below their 39 percent in the Playoffs, and probably the most impressive defensive stat was only two free throw attempts. I think we got there 20 times. We know Jimmy Butler is one of the best in the business at getting to the foul line, so two free throw attempts. I thought our guys did a great job of defending without fouling.

To your point, I thought for three quarters, our defense was where it needed to be. Fourth quarter, 60 percent allowed, 30 points, and I think as I told our players, we're up 1-0, that's great, but we have to close games out. We're up 21 to start that fourth quarter, and they open up with a quick 8-0 run, turnover, layup. We missed a few open shots against the zone, gave up some threes. In the Finals you can't pick and choose when you want to play. We've got to play much closer to 48 minutes.

Q. To win another Game 1, to set that tone again in a series, you guys have continuously done that in the postseason, how helpful has it been to do that, and how impressive was that tonight?

MICHAEL MALONE: That was one of my last messages to the group before our game. I reminded our group, if they didn't know that Miami went into Milwaukee and won Game 1. They went into the Garden in New York City and won Game 1. They won Game 1 up in Boston. So, we did not want them coming in here taking control of the series on our court.

To your point, we've done a hell of a job all season long of protecting our home court. I don't think we've lost a game at home in the playoffs as of yet. We know Sunday night is going to be a hell of a challenge.

Proud of our guys for going out there and getting the win. Michael Porter, a double-double. Jamal Murray, double-double. Nikola, triple-double. I felt Aaron Gordon's play on both ends of the floor in that first half really set the tone, and I thought Bruce was really good off the bench.

This was everybody stepping up, doing their job, but knowing that we can all be a lot better come Sunday.

Q. You mentioned that Aaron Gordon set the tone; can you talk about just what has impressed you the most about the sacrifice that he has made for this team and the defense that he's played against some of the best guys in the league throughout the postseason?

MICHAEL MALONE: Yeah, I think Aaron -- we always talk about Nikola embodying Nuggets culture, and I think Aaron Gordon is a prime example of somebody who's truly selfless. He understood with Jamal and Michael coming back this year being healthy that his role was going to change. He never once fought it. He's embraced it from day one of the season and gone out there, whether it's guarding Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and now obviously guarding a guy like Jimmy Butler. He does a lot of the dirty work for us, and a lot of times he doesn't get the credit that he deserves.

They were switching early on and I felt he was really big in terms of sitting down in front of the rim, scoring in the paint and finishing at the rim. And again, just his effort on the defensive end was just another example of his importance to our group.

Q. Coach, Bam was getting loose off Miami's pick-and-rolls against the drop. Is the answer to play him tighter going forward?

MICHAEL MALONE: Well, you've got to read the game. If you're giving up tough mid-range contested twos, that's better than them getting a lot of open threes. Obviously, we can do a better job of contesting some of those mid-range shots that Bam was getting, and I think we have to mix up our levels. To your point, Kyle Lowry, Gabe Vincent, they hit a couple of pull-up threes. I was imploring our guys, imploring Nikola to be up higher. When you do that, now Bam gets behind you and you have to trust your low man and trust your weak-side help. In that fourth quarter, I felt once we were at the level, I thought we had some pretty good examples of helping on that roll and disrupting their offense.

Q. I don't know how much you worried about the potential rust, but with so much emphasis on Joker and Jamal, how much did Aaron's early scoring get past that potential rust and spark you guys in the beginning?

MICHAEL MALONE: Yeah, as I said earlier, I felt Aaron really kind of set the tone on both ends of the floor for us. He's done that all year long, whether it's in transition versus a cross match sitting down posting up a smaller guy, sealing him in the paint, going up strong. They switched a few of the pick-and-rolls early, sitting down, posting up, finding him. And then giving us a great defensive effort against arguably one of the best players in the NBA right now in Jimmy Butler.

We're a team and give Bam Adebayo credit. He did a really good job of making Nikola's catches hard. He fronted him a lot in that first quarter throughout the game. So, we needed other guys to step up. If you're going to take away Nikola, then find a way to get somebody else open and let them get off, and Aaron obviously benefitted from that and did a hell of a job.

Q. Were you worried about the long layoff?

MICHAEL MALONE: I really wasn't, and the reason I say that is because end of the regular season and before we played Game 1, Round 1 against Minnesota, we had the same thing, we had like a week to get ready. For much of that week, like this series, we didn't know who we were playing. But our guys were so locked in going into that Game 1 and I felt since we got back to practice after that Lakers series, our guys have been the same way, man. They've been so locked in. Every day in practice, I haven't had to push them, encourage them. They're bringing it. Tonight, obviously was great to see after such a long break, getting off to the start that we did.

Q. You mentioned the effort to take away Nikola early. You guys go up 17 at halftime, he's only taken three shots and was still able to control the game with his passing. Closes it out, eight points in the last four minutes. What does it show about the way Nikola can control the game in a variety of different aspects?

MICHAEL MALONE: I think that's the beauty of Nikola. I learned a long time ago the defense tells you what to do, and Nikola never forces it. If they're going to give him that kind of attention, he had 10 assists at halftime, I believe. Well, he's going to just pick you apart. Now it's up to the other guys to step in and make shots.

I think it was the fourth quarter, we got into the bonus early. I was trying to post him up, get him the ball, tried to screen Bam, so he could catch the ball in a scoring area and let Nikola do what he does.

But to your point, I think that's -- Nikola never tries to impose his will or force things that aren't there. He's going to read the game. He's going to make the right play. Most importantly he's going to make every one of his teammates better.

Q. He ends up finishing as your leading scorer at the end of this. Do you think any of that even matters to him in terms of, does he need to score to get involved or to feel involved in the game or is it simply he'd almost prefer to have 10 assists at halftime?

MICHAEL MALONE: Yeah, one thing about Nikola is he takes great satisfaction in making plays for others. He really does. I think he takes more joy in that.

I don't think he cares if he scored 27 points or not. He cares that we're up 1-0. I think everybody in that locker room realizes that yes, we need Nikola, but Michael Porter's double-double, Jamal's double-double, Bruce's 10 and 5 off the bench. This is a team. We have some really talented players, but we need everybody in that locker room to do their jobs, to try to go and get game No. 2 on Sunday night.

Q. When Highsmith hits that three and they cut it to nine, did you think about maybe calling a timeout or did you want your team to play through the discomfort or the tightness?

MICHAEL MALONE: Yes, I can't bail them out every time. I called a timeout after the 8-0 run in the third. I called a few in the fourth, but at some point, also our guys have to take ownership. If you're going to win a championship, you need the five guys on the floor to step up, take accountability and make sure we execute and get the best shot on offense and get stops defensively.

To our guys' credit, they cut it but we were able to withstand that and wind up pulling away.

Q. Michael had two blocks, I think, early in the first half, was contesting a lot of shots. What did you think about his activity on the defensive end tonight?

MICHAEL MALONE: Yeah, it's where it needs to be. I think we're past the point of praising Michael when he has a good defensive game. He needs to, as does everybody else on our team. This is the NBA Finals. We showed one of those at halftime where they ran a pick-and-roll for Jimmy Butler, Michael tried to get under, stayed in the play and wound up blocking Jimmy from behind.

So those are the plays that Michael and everybody else needs to play for us to win this series. It can't be like, hey, look at Michael Porter, he's doing a great job. That is his job, and it's Jamal's job and Pope's job and Nikola, Aaron and everybody else that plays for us.

Q. This is Jamal's fourth straight Game 1 with at least 24 points, five rebounds and five assists. Is there something about Game 1s that you think allow him to have those kind of performances?

MICHAEL MALONE: I don't know if it's like -- he's even aware of that. Like I don't think he gets up more for Game 1 than Game 2. I think it speaks to 7 to 10 days in between games. I think that allowed us to get some quality rest mentally, physically, emotionally and get ready for tonight.

As I said pregame, I wasn't sure what was going to happen when the game started, because we had such a long break. But I'm not surprised that Jamal had the game that he had. He got us going early, made big shots late. And when you have 26 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, that's a hell of a performance in your first game of the NBA Finals.

Q. Michael, when the Heat come back and they fight back like they did, cutting it down to 10-9, what does that tell you about them and what are you expecting Game 2 from them?

MICHAEL MALONE: Their run was to be expected. That team is a really good team. That's the best team out of the Eastern Conference. So you're not just going to win by 20 points and they're not going to go quietly into that good night. They're going to be there. They're going to scratch and claw to get back in the game like they did tonight.

Guys made plays for them, they got stops. I thought we did a good job against their zone early in the game. I thought in that fourth quarter we got very stagnant against that zone and it kind of bothered us a little bit. So we've got to be better there.

But I fully expected that. They're a well-coached team, and they're here for a reason. We knew they'd make a run, and what's it going to take on Sunday night? They're going to come out and try to jump all over us and take control of the series and that game early on, and we have to be ready for that.

Q. Did you guys do a Defensive Player of the Game chain tonight?

MICHAEL MALONE: We did: Gave it to Aaron Gordon. I made the point that when you hold a team in the NBA Finals to 93 points, 40 from the field, 33 from the three-point line and only two free throw attempts, could have given it to the whole team tonight. I thought a lot of guys had really good defensive games, taking away that fourth quarter.

So yes, Aaron got it. I thought he did a hell of a job taking on that challenge of guarding a guy like Jimmy Butler, but I felt as a group, a collective unit, I felt our guys did a hell of a job, as well.

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