DENVER - The Denver Nuggets are looking to salvage their four-game homestand by finishing with a statement win over the Eastern Conference's second-seeded Boston Celtics. Denver is currently 1-2 on their homestand and is in desperate need of an additional victory before taking on the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets (twice), Cleveland Cavaliers, and Indiana Pacers over their next six games.
The fight for the eighth seed is looking like a race to the finish and since Denver doesn't own the tiebreaker over the Portland Trail Blazers, every home game is now a must-win matchup.
Regular season game No. 65 | Denver Nuggets (29-35) vs Boston Celtics (41-24)
As the All-Star break came and went, so did the Nuggets' pace of play. Before the break, Denver's pace was among the league's best at 100.68 possessions per 49 minutes. But since the break, Denver has slowed to 98.53. If Denver is to make a run at the final playoff race they will need a way to speed up their style of play.
"Going into the break we were around 5th or 6th in pace of play. Coming out we dropped down around 15th or 16th," Michael Malone said at shootaround Friday. "I think our defense can help in that regard. The more defensive stops, rebounds, and run-outs we can get will be great but now we have to find times that even if we do not get a stop to get the ball in-bounds quickly and get it over half-court and just be hard to guard."
Quickening the pace of play will provide Denver with easier baskets as well as play to the Nuggets' strengths. Before the All-Star break, the Nuggets were averaging 14.4 fast break points per game and that number has dwindled to just 13 since. Easy baskets and big momentum swings are a necessity to get Denver's open and flowing offensive system into a rhythm.
"I thought the start of our Milwaukee game I thought we had that. The first ten possessions of that game may have been our best first ten possessions all year long. The pace at which we played at, the ball-movement, the purpose, and the efficiency was phenomenal," Malone said. Against a good team and a good defensive team you can't play a slowdown, walk-it-up game, and play against a set defense. We have yet to win a game when scoring under 100 points. That speaks volumes to me so we need to go out there and find ways to run all night long. If we do that then we give ourselves a chance."
Malone and IT3
Malone, who coached Isaiah Thomas in his first year in Sacramento, was peppered with questions about the explosive guard and the time they spent together. Malone is thought of as one of the few coaches that did not try to change Thomas and it led to a bond between Thomas and Malone. Thomas credits Malone in helping him get to where he is now and for not trying to change him from the player that he is today.
Malone was eager to reminisce about his time in Sacramento with Thomas.
"I say this with all sincerity; I love the kid. We hit it off and what I learned from those relationships is that if you are honest and you are real then it will go a long way. I remember sitting down with him and telling him, 'listen, I am going to start Greivis Vasquez. You are going to come off of the bench.' It's not what is best for Isaiah but it is what I think is best for the team and with that, Isaiah, you are going to close a lot of games and play together. The bigger picture was that we had a lot of people around the organization trying to get him to be something that he wasn't. If you know Isaiah Thomas' history, he was a scorer in high school. He was a prolific scorer in college, and he has been a scorer in the NBA. I didn't want him to be John Stockton because that is not who he is and that would be unfair of me to ask him to change. I think he respected and admired that because I wanted him to be the best Isaiah Thomas. Stay true to yourself but also let us look to work on other areas he can work to improve upon."
"I saw a young man who had a huge, huge heart, a tremendous work ethic, a true student of the game, and a guy that you could never bet against him. He was always about proving everybody wrong. We had a great relationship and he played unbelievable basketball for me in my one year with Sacramento; 20 points, six assists. I was hoping he would be back in year two. Obviously, that was not the case. To see him go from Sac to Phoenix and now to Boston and be a perennial All-Star and to be the No. 1 scorer in the fourth quarter is just, I am so happy for him. I am not surprised, but I am very happy for him."
The Nuggets now lead the Portland Trail Blazers by just half a game for the eighth seed in the Western Conference while the Dallas Mavericks are just a game behind Portland with the Minnesota Timberwolves sitting two-and-a-half games out of the final playoff spot. As the season comes to a close it's becoming more apparent that the race for the final playoff spot in the West will come down to the wire.
Portland and Dallas both have the night off while the Timberwolves are preparing to host the Golden State Warriors. Denver has a chance to extend their lead for the eighth seed if they can secure a win over Boston.
Danilo Gallinari is expected to play according to Malone after dealing with a bout of vertigo. He went through shootaround and looks primed to return to the starting lineup.
Nikola Jokic is a slightly different story. Jokic was listed as doubtful and did not play Wednesday against Washington but his status looks more promising heading into Monday night's matchup but Malone was very non-committal on the status of his Serbian star. Jokic did go through part of shootaround this morning and looked to be feeling better. Malone considers him "very questionable."
"I think Gallinari will be able to play. Nikola was here this morning and went through parts of shootaround so he is still very questionable for tonight. Gallinari, I think, will give it a go and it will be great to have him back," Malone continued. "We have 18 games to go so we are going to need everybody to step up and play through some pain if you have to because there is a lot on the line."