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Michael Malone on Nuggets’ Game 7 loss: “Did I run our players into the ground? I’m sure that?

25/05/2024

The way this ended will stick with the Nuggets for much longer than one offseason.

It’ll be remembered as one of the more painful what-if moments in Denver sports history. Whether the Nuggets would have repeated as champions will never be answered.

It’s easy to conflate one climactic failure with the full body of work. The temptation when dissecting a Game 7 with implications as dramatic as Denver’s loss to Minnesota last week is for media and fans to diagnose what went wrong as having been an inescapable problem for the entire season. At best, that’s a one-dimensional method of searching for answers. At worst, it borders on laziness.

But even coach Michael Malone, reflecting on the 2023-24 season this week, recognized one overarching theme behind the Nuggets’ 20-point collapse that helps explain any number of their collective and individual symptoms.

The defending champs encountered a fuel shortage in the second half of the season-defining game.

“On one hand, we got the 2 seed,” Malone said Thursday when asked about how much he played his starters late in the regular season. “And on the other hand, I’m watching our players play in Game 7 in the second half, and our guys looked dead tired. I think you guys probably saw the same thing. So did I run our players into the ground? I’m sure that’s definitely part of it.”

The Nuggets’ starting unit of Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic played 958 minutes together in the regular season — more than any other five-man lineup in the last six NBA seasons. The closest five-man lineup in 2023-24 was Oklahoma City’s (much younger) starting unit, which finished the regular season 159 minutes behind Denver’s. The Thunder did not make the playoffs in 2023, whereas the Nuggets played two extra months.

Entering the playoffs, those minutes were seen as a testament to durability being one of Denver’s defining championship traits. With hindsight, the same minutes are seen as miles.

“Joker is one of the best players in the league, and if I’m coaching, I want to leave him out there for 48 minutes, right?” general manager Calvin Booth said, laughing.

The issue traces back to a critical point of tension between front-office ideology and day-to-day coaching. Booth’s blueprint for outsmarting the stringent new collective bargaining agreement requires commitment to home-grown depth. He drafted two players in the first round in 2022 and three more players last summer after winning the championship. He possesses two more picks in the upcoming draft.

Taking stock of roster needs before then will be difficult, however, because the 2023 picks were mostly contained to the G League as rookies. No. 27 pick Julian Strawther appeared in NBA games somewhat frequently during the first half of the season, but after returning from a right knee injury in February, he was cut out of the rotation. Malone revealed in his end-of-season news conference that the injury, sustained in early January, was an MCL sprain.

Rather than the push for Western Conference seeding after the All-Star break, Strawther’s injury seems like an appropriate demarcation for the start of Denver’s “home stretch.” On Jan. 6, with 45 games remaining, Malone said, “Pacing yourself is what losing teams do.”

In the ensuing 45 games, Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson played 148 total minutes. Only 32.2 of those combined minutes, all belonging to Strawther, were before the fourth quarter (translation: before garbage time). The trio of draft picks scored 61 combined points during those 45 games.

In those same 45 games, Denver’s starters plus Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun and Peyton Watson combined to rest 19 games (nine of those were Murray’s injury-related absences.) That eight-man rotation combined to account for 87.2% of the team’s total minutes. Jokic, Murray and Porter combined for 52.4% of Denver’s scoring across the three-month stretch.

What happens when two of those three cogs get jammed? A second-round exit.

“I have to sometimes take my head up from the bunker and say, ‘OK, it’s not about just winning the next game; it’s about, how do we win this season?'” Malone acknowledged Thursday. “And if that means resting guys a little bit more, lessening their load, the minutes, the games played, we’ll have to look at everything across the board so when we do get to the playoffs, we give ourselves the best chance.”

Fatigue is a taboo word for athletes, but when it’s a factor in a team’s demise, it’s enough to refract the blame. Malone’s determination to win every night for a place in the standings that didn’t ultimately matter was a factor. So was the construction of Denver’s bench to begin with, a hot topic all season with Bruce Brown off to Toronto. Booth signed Jackson to replace some of the minutes, but Jackson’s productivity dipped after December. Jokic never had a reliable backup center.

Jamal Murray (27) of the Denver Nuggets works against Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Jamal Murray (27) of the Denver Nuggets works against Nickeil Alexander-Walker (9) of the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second quarter at Ball Arena in Denver on Sunday, May 19, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Then there was Murray, whose efficiency took the biggest hit from regular season to playoffs. Booth and Malone both suggested that conditioning might have been a factor.

“We all have to study and look at what we could do better. Maybe look at past history. … Do you look at what other great players have done, other great guards have done after they won a championship, and try to prepare in that manner?” Booth said. “I think you have to do some investigating on what that looks like, to make it through a season after playing all the way into June. If Jamal is in shape and in condition, he’s a totally different beast. He obviously wore down a little bit at the end of the playoffs.”

Murray scored 29 points in the first 26 minutes of Game 7 and six in the last 22 minutes. Jokic grabbed 15 boards in the first half and four in the second half, contributing to a minus-13 rebounding margin as a team. Porter seemed absent even when he wasn’t. A championship run caught up with the Nuggets at precisely the worst moment. Regardless of roster assembly next time, that might’ve been the most enduring lesson of the 2023-24 season.

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https://www.denverpost.com/2024/05/24/michael-malone-game-7-loss-jamal-murray-conditioning-calvin-booth/

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