NEW YORK CITY - Minutes after his Denver Nuggets put the finishing touches on a reluctant beatdown of the New York Knicks on Friday night, Michael Malone found his spot along the wall outside of the visitor’s locker room in Madison Square Garden. He looked, frankly, a little tired. His voice was hoarse.
“I thought we did a pretty good job,” he rasped, when Altitude’s Katy Winge asked him what he thought of his team’s performance. “The one thing I told our guys after is that we have to find ways to just be more consistent.
“There were times and stretches in tonight’s game where we looked like the best team in the NBA. There were other stretches where we looked like a team fighting to even make the playoffs.”
Those who follow this team closely remember the inconsistency from last season — wins against teams like the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors were followed by losses to teams like the Memphis Grizzlies. The peaks were high and the valleys were low; it was maddening.
There’s a new baseline for this season’s Nuggets team, though. Even when they’re not at their best, it’s been good enough and they’re capable of sleepwalking their way to victories against lesser teams.
The problem now isn’t quite inconsistency from game-to-game, but rather, inconsistency within a given game. It’s something their head coach is trying to wring out of them before the playoffs start.
“I definitely saw it tonight,” Malone said following the win on Friday. “That complacency, lack of focus, or discipline at times.
“People get bored with success. We get up by 24 points and you forget what allowed you to get up by 24 points—by playing good defense and moving the ball. Now you look up and see you’re up 24 and some guys area saying ‘it is my time to shine; I am going to do my thing’ and you get away from what allowed you to build that lead in the first place.”
It can be hard this time of year to make a distinction between the formation of bad habits and the natural letup that comes for a team in Denver’s position. They’ve already clinched, and while there’s more to play for, this team has spent the last two seasons fighting like hell for a spot in the tournament. There’s no pressure this time around.
But Malone recognizes that the postseason is its own animal, and he’s expressed some concern lately that his players may not be prepared for playoff basketball. You can take off possessions — hell, even entire quarters against the Knicks in March and walk out of the building with a win.
In the playoffs? Not so much.
“To be a good playoff team we’ve got to be playing our best basketball going into the postseason,” Malone told the media prior to tipoff. “And if we just kind of let our foot off the gas, that will not be the case.”
The Nuggets have won six-straight games now and they walked out of the Garden tied in the loss column with Golden State for the best record out West. For Malone, the task at hand is finding a way to demand more from his players, to get the absolute best out of them, even if what they’re giving is good enough to get a win.
“Searching for it,” Malone responded when asked what it takes to extract consistency from his players. “We’re winning games, but I don’t even think we’re playing our best basketball. That’s a good thing, when you’re not playing great, you’re not playing consistent but you’re winning games. It’s just a matter of staying on top of guys, watching film, and demanding it from them. Reminding them about it, like I did in every huddle tonight, that’s why I got no voice.”
For a perfectionist like Malone, there might be some challenge in finding the balance here. On one hand, he’s preparing his players for the most competitive basketball tournament in the world. On the other, it’s March 22nd, it’s the Knicks and they won.
“The best thing was that every time we gave it up, we gathered, we went back out there, and we built that lead back up,” Malone concluded.
It’s hard to ask for more than what the Nuggets have delivered thus far. But Malone knows his team is capable of more. And they won’t stop searching for ways to get there.