Overall, I’ve been impressed with the Nuggets’ performance in the preseason this year. Tallying more wins than losses, the new and improved roster seems to be working well in a lot of the ways we anticipated they would as the offseason changes took place. I’m happy to see Jamal Murray come into his own a little more, and I like his combination with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap on the starting lineup.
I’m also excited about the Nuggets’ bench. Will Barton had an incredible performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder this past week, and I’m actually liking what I see when he and Jameer Nelson are on the court together (I was previously more of a harsh critic of Nelson last season). I still don’t think Nelson is a starter, but off the bench he’s great at keeping things moving, and running a proper offense.
Broad brush aside, I really want to zero in on the Oklahoma City Thunder preseason game. Before I begin, I’d like to note that I realize a preseason game doesn’t actually count toward any placement in any division or conference, and that in just a few days everyone starts with a clean slate—of sorts.
However, I strongly disagree with the notion that I shouldn’t read too much into Thursday’s loss, and that a preseason game doesn’t matter. I disagree that a win against one of the new super teams who is a serious contender in the Western Conference in front of the home crowd doesn’t matter. And, I disagree that any win, no matter how insignificant, doesn’t matter.
When I first began working in my career field, I had the mentality that certain contract awards for my company were more important than others. In my inexperienced mind, higher dollar amount was equivalent to higher value, and I adjusted my performance in those respective scenarios accordingly. It wasn’t until my boss at the time (and trusted coworker today), challenged me to change my perspective. She always seemed so intense to me in those early days, but today I’m incredibly grateful for what she helped me learn.
You see, as a professional, you should have a standard of performance for everything you do. Your performance defines your reputation in your career field, and you truly never know where an opportunity to secure a big contract, or get a win on the court will come from. A win doesn’t get its importance from what you get out of it, a win is important intrinsically because it defines who you are (in the professional arena only of course). Sure, we all fail from time to time, but failure should never come out of a lack of effort or intensity, or because what you’re doing “doesn’t matter”.
That’s the way I view the Nuggets’ match up against the Thunder this past Thursday. I will acknowledge that Denver really did some things right in that game. The ball movement was excellent, and there were a couple of players consistently focused on defense. Barton played his heart out, and hello Tyler Lydon with the effort under the rim.
While I think defense is still a big issue for the Nuggets, I believe the reason they ultimately lost that game came down to coaching. Late into the 3rd quarter, and through the 4th the Nuggets came alive thanks mostly to Barton and shots FINALLY starting to fall. The Nuggets fought and scrapped their way back from an 18 point deficit to bring the game to within 1 point. With just a few minutes left, and a win within striking distance coach Malone changed up the lineup.
He does this type of thing all the time. When a player heats up or the pendulum starts to swing in the Nuggets’ direction, he likes to tinker. Unfortunately, that usually results in a momentum break for Denver. Sure, players may have needed a rest, and if its early in the 2nd quarter you can’t keep the same guys in for the remainder of the game, but with a win within grasp an additional 4 or 5 minutes wouldn’t have hurt anyone.
Coach Malone has challenged his team to work to close out games, and I believe that challenge needs to start with him. His failure to close that game, and let off the gas when a win was fully attainable has me very concerned about how things will transpire this season. So while I can appreciate the value of not reading too much into things this early on, this behavior is becoming all too consistent and its results are frustrating to watch.
Winning coaches like Bill Belichick are constantly in attack mode (albeit questionably at times) even when it may not matter, and even when a lead has been secured. Athletes like Muhammad Ali know that once you have your opponent on the ropes, you push through to finish the job. Who cares if it’s preseason, or a scrimmage for that matter? It’s important to see that effort through, and close on the win—especially when you’re within arm’s reach. You may be tired, and you’ll have to dig deep, but that’s exactly the type of situation elite coaches and athletes have developed the ability to push through.
So here’s where some might say, “But why would you do that when the game doesn’t count for anything?” My question is, why would you not do it? Why would you not push to compete at a higher level, and get into the habit?
This win was important for so many reasons that have nothing at all to do with the preseason. This was the Nuggets’ first game at home for the 2017-2018 season in front of the crowd they will need to support them this year. They fought like hell to come back from certain defeat, and to close out that win against the Thunder would have helped them see that they can beat any team they want, and it would have given them the experience of seeing how deep they will have to dig to get those kinds of wins. That’s how deep they’ll have to dig if they want a prayer in this year’s Western Conference.
That big picture impact should’ve switched Malone’s mindset to that of a playoff game. Not only would the Nuggets have sent a message to the league that they’re here to compete this year, but they would have sent themselves that message to adopt as daily habit.
Fortunately, the Nuggets have the entire season in front of them, and things really are looking up. However, I’m still very nervous about the decisions of the coaching team in clutch moments. They must to learn how to close a game before any player can be expected to. If a win didn’t matter last week, when will it matter? Just half a game could be the make or break for a playoff appearance so it always matters.