The Nuggets got run out of the gym on Wednesday night. In a 123-98 loss to the Suns, in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate, Denver was dominated in every way, shape and form.
Phoenix beat them from the outside and scored more in the paint. The Suns out-rebounded the Nuggets and committed less turnovers. By almost every metric, the home team was the better team. And it wasn’t even close.
By night’s end, the party was on. The home crowd was celebrating. The Suns players were hooting and hollering. The Nuggets were getting their noses rubbed in an embarrassing loss in front of a national television audience.
As a result, it’s understandable that the team wouldn’t react well during postgame interviews. Some frustration was bound to escape.
That was to be expected from the players. But it’s unacceptable that it came from the head coach.
“I felt we quit tonight, which is something you never want to see,” Michael Malone said after the game, dropping a bombshell that became the storyline from Game 2.
That’s a big, bold word. To say that an athlete “quit” is about as big of an indictment as anyone can levy. It’s a massive insult.
It’s also toothpaste that Malone can’t put back into the tube. He said it. He meant it. He now has to live with it.
The comment was just the latest misstep from a head coach that seems overwhelmed at times. It was an emotional outburst, one uttered by someone who wasn’t thinking beyond the moment.
Was Malone simply trying to light a fire under his team? Perhaps. But his psychological ploy was pretty amateurish. It was like a lesson from week one of Motivation 101.
Great coaches are much savvier. Their postgame press conferences are master classes. Every word is intentional. Every comment is calculated.
Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich and all of the greats used the forum to make a point. They utilized the media to gain an advantage. It’s why they won titles.
Malone used the presser to chuck his team under the bus. He took the opportunity to pass the blame for the embarrassment to everyone other than himself. And he has now saddled them nationally with an unsavory label – quitters.
What should he have said? That’s easy.
“The Suns were great tonight. They’re shooting the basketball so well. They’re just firing on all cylinders. I tip my cap to them.”
Maybe, just maybe, praising Phoenix will get them to take their foot off the gas a bit. Perhaps reading their own press clippings will cause to relax just a bit, take some ill-advised shots and open the door just a crack for Denver. If nothing else, it deflects blame away from his team, instead heaping praise on their opponent.
“I have faith in our guys. We’ve shown resilience all year. When Jamal Murray went down, we rallied and finished the season strong. When we fell behind to Portland, we circled the wagons and found a way to win the series. We bounced back from two 3-1 deficits last year in the playoffs. It’d be a mistake to count us out.”
The Nuggets appeared overwhelmed against the Suns. They had a deer-in-the-headlights look about them. The last thing they need is a kick in the butt. If a team ever needed a pat on the back, it’s Denver after the first two games. A pep talk would’ve resonated more than a tongue-lashing. They need their confidence boosted, not chipped away at even more.
“We’ll get home, get our crowd behind us and things will be different. Maybe we’ll get a better whistle early. Maybe the MVP will be treated like the MVP. This isn’t a very hospitable place. Phoenix will get the same kind of reception in Denver.
Work the officials a bit by suggesting that things weren’t even in the first two games. Remind the refs that the league’s Most Valuable Player is in a Nuggets uniform. And fire up the home crowd in the process. Plant the seeds.
It’s not hard. Lift up your team instead of knocking them down.
Malone couldn’t do it, however. He’s an old-school guy. He has the personality of someone who blowtorches bridges and then finds a new route later. He couldn’t help himself.
“I’m just going to try to find guys that will at least go out there and leave it all on the line,” he added after Game 3. “I may have a hard time coming up with five guys.”
Not exactly a rallying cry. Not the speech that winds up on a plaque outside of Ball Arena, appears on t-shirts or becomes the basis of a made-for-TV movie. Not that kind of stuff that makes players want to run through a wall for their head coach.
The opportunity was there. Malone just missed it.
“I gotta find some answers. I’ve gotten my butt kicked Monty Williams in these first two games. That’s on me. I’ll be better when we get to Denver. I’ll put my guys in a better place to win.”
Oh how that would’ve changed the narrative today. That’s what a great leader would’ve said.
Michael Malone just didn’t have it in him.
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