DENVER — It was never going to be easy. A team doesn't take 47 years to reach the NBA Finals and then dance to the title like Mikhail Baryshnikov.
There were always going to be missteps, mistakes, and reminders that the Miami Heat are more difficult to kill than a cockroach.
Let's be honest. The Nuggets did not play well in their Game 1 win. And they were downright cringe-worthy defensively in Game 2.
Following the loss, coach Michael Malone provided his spin on Allen Iverson's famous rant, repeating, "We are talking about effort." Worse, he was talking about it during the NBA Finals, not after back-to-backs in Toronto in March.
The Nuggets enter Wednesday night facing their biggest challenge of the postseason. Miami is an eighth seed with nothing to lose. When you are the ugly guy in the fight, it makes you dangerous.
So how do the Nuggets take back homecourt advantage? Effort is the overarching umbrella. That is part of it.
Malone doesn't miss in these moments, thus thinking he meant something else is trying too hard. Trust me. He wanted to send a message, a verbal punch to the throat for a team showing signs of bad habits that surfaced over the season's final month to wake the heck up. You know it is the Finals, right?
The adjustment is simple enough. The execution is not.
Defensively, the Nuggets must be more disciplined and communicate better on switches. They gave up 26 open looks in the first two games. That is a staggering, if not embarrassing, number. The Heat laid bricks in the opener, but simmered on Sunday, converting 17 of 35 threes. Duncan Robinson, a forgotten man for much of this season, scored 10 points in roughly two minutes.
Malone said this week that he showed his team 17 breakdowns that led to 40 points. That is a fair estimate. The Nuggets struggled to defend the pick-and-roll. Michael Porter Jr. was bad, a juxtaposition from his playoff performances. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was doing old school fly-bys on 3-pointers, running into Heat players in ways that were foolish and inexcusable.
There's good reason to believe that will change Wednesday. MPJ suggested part of the issue was that Miami knew Denver's defensive calls and adjusted to them. That's easy enough — change the verbal cues. It's no different than a pitcher and catcher switching signs when a runner is on second base.
The second part requires discipline and technique. Don't go over the top on picks. Stay underneath. Fight through. Don't show your back too quickly, leaving shooters with space and comfortable with eyes on the rim. If you ever want to know the biggest difference between college and the pros, watch how well NBA players — any of them — shoot when open. It has to be a rarity.
So, get sticky on defense. Switch when necessary. But switch it up. And let them know that you are ready to match their physicality. Jimmy Butler, who has yet to go off offensively, is going to have a game where he looks like an MVP. He's going to get his. The key? You can't get beat by the Other Guys — Gabe Vincent, Caleb Martin, Robinson and Max Strus.
It requires intensity and energy. Effort is a given, or at least I expect it to be as Denver regains control of this series.