After making NBA history on Tuesday by completing a second consecutive 3-1 playoff series comeback, the emotions are high for the Denver Nuggets. But coach Mike Malone is stressing the point: They can't be satisfied with themselves yet.
"I think the biggest question aside from themes, plays, personnel, is are our guys satisfied," Malone said Thursday. "Man, we just made playoff history, down 3-1, down 3-1 [again]. We've gotten to the Western Conference finals [for] only the second time in franchise history. Take a breath, come up for air. The Lakers aren't coming up for air. They've been waiting."
The Nuggets came back in their opening-round series from down 3-1 against the Utah Jazz to win in seven games, then did it all over again against the LA Clippers, advancing to take on the Los Angeles Lakers in the Westen Conference finals, which begin Friday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
"I know LeBron [James], having been around him," said Malone, who was an assistant in Cleveland during James' time there. "They're going to try to come out and send a message tomorrow. I don't think our guys are satisfied. That's going to be the greatest challenge tomorrow, can we match the intensity. I thought in Game 1 against the Clippers we did it for a quarter and a half, couldn't sustain it. I think we were just gassed."
Guard Jamal Murray admitted after Game 1 against the Clippers that he felt the wear and tear of the previous series and that it played a factor in the Nuggets fading down the stretch. That turnaround was much quicker, though, with only one day between games. The Nuggets have two days to recover and prepare before taking on the Lakers on Friday. The Lakers, on the other hand, took care of both their series in five games and haven't played since last Saturday.
"I think the Lakers are probably the most rested team in the bubble," Malone said. "They've taken care of business. Give them credit in that regard."
The Nuggets found their legs -- and their adjustments -- midway through the series against the Clippers. And while it gives them confidence they can get out of any situation, they're hoping to build on the momentum of the series, rather than reset and ease into it again.
"If you remember, I think it's the third or fourth game against the Clippers, we kind of felt good because we played good and everybody was playing for each other," center Nikola Jokic said. "We lost the game, but we kind of put up the fight. I think we want that feeling again. We are playing free, playing for each other, winning. We are hungry for that feeling."
A big motivational tactic the Nuggets have been leaning into this postseason is the lack of faith from fans and media. They were the underdog against the Clippers (all 19 ESPN experts picked LA) and they expect the same against the Lakers. Though Jokic said he thought the Nuggets "surprised" the Clippers, the secret is out now; he doesn't expect to do the same against the Lakers.
"I mean, even when we beat the Clippers, they were talking how the Clippers lost. They don't think about us. Not even the Lakers, not even anybody," Jokic said. "I think they're really focused. You can just see how they're playing. Even the Portland series, the Houston series, they are really locked in. They will not take us for granted. We kind of surprised the Clippers. Probably they don't want to make that happen to them, so I think they're going to be really focused and really locked in."
The Nuggets are 6-0 in elimination games this postseason, finding their best basketball in the most tense moments. It gave Malone an idea.
"Well, we actually did petition the league to see if we could just get right to it and start 3-1 down, save everybody a lot of time, catch up to the Eastern Conference," he joked. "But that was shot down."
Though if Malone's looking for some pregame speech material for Friday's Game 1, he could remind his team that, technically, it is down 3-1 to the Lakers already -- the Nuggets lost the regular-season series 3-1.