Malone says their meeting against the relentless Heat will be the greatest challenge the Nuggets have ever faced.
“You get to the NBA Finals, it’s not about seeding anymore,” Malone said after practice. “And for those who are thinking that this is going to be an easy series, I don’t even know what to say to you people.
“This is going to be the biggest challenge of our lives. This is the NBA Finals. You’re trying to win the first NBA championship in franchise history, and it’s going to be the hardest thing that we’ve ever done — which is the way it should be.”
The Nuggets have not played since completing their sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals on May 22. But Tuesday was the first day they could focus their sights on the Heat and how to slow down Jimmy Butler.
After getting by Minnesota‘s Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round, Phoenix’s Devin Booker and Kevin Durant in the second round and the Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the conference finals, the Nuggets have to figure out how to contain Butler.
Butler is averaging 28.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists and shooting 48.3% from the field. But Malone said Butler is so much more than just stats.
“When I look at Jimmy Butler, what separates him from most players is the drive — the competitive spirit within him, a relentless attack,” Malone said. “It was really cool seeing the press conference they showed from last year when they lost and how everything he talked about in that moment kind of came to fruition a year later, and he has this team back in the Finals.
“What makes Jimmy hard to guard is, we know he’s talented, he’s big, he’s strong, he can get to his spots on the court, but he has the gift of drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. But he’s a big-moment player. He’s not scared. He’s tough. He’s relentless, and he’s a warrior.”
Aaron Gordon has had success defending top scoring options for the Nuggets this postseason. But Gordon said he knows he will have his hands full with Butler if the assignment falls to him. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown could also see time defending Butler.
“Jimmy is a difficult cover for different reasons than the guys I’ve guarded in the past like KD, LeBron, KAT,” Gordon said. “Jimmy does everything. He does all the intangible things. He gets out in transition. He gets cuts. He gets offensive rebounds. He gets backdoors. He gets spinouts. He does a lot of the game within the game, as well as being really skilled. He’s a difficult cover.
“Just make it tough for him, play without fouling to the best of my ability and just compete.”
In the second round against Phoenix, the Nuggets had trouble slowing Booker, especially in the midrange. Booker averaged 30.8 points, 7.8 assists and 56.9% shooting. But Denver held the Suns scorer to a total of 40 points and a combined 12-for-32 shooting in the final two wins of that series to eliminate Phoenix.
Like Booker, Butler likes to get downhill and do damage in the midrange.
“He’s been going crazy,” Gordon said. “I don’t really set targets for like [how many] points [to hold him to]. I just want to make it as difficult as I possibly can for him all night long for 48, through an entire series.
“Just making everything that he gets tough. Make him work for everything. … If he gets to his 27 [point] mark but he takes however many shots, it’s a win.”
Since seeding began in 1984, the Heat are the first eight seed to reach the NBA Finals since the New York Knicks in 1999. But the Nuggets are not underestimating them.
“We’ve got the utmost respect for them,” Gordon said. “They fight and they scrap, and they have no quit in them. They play through 48 minutes a game and more if necessary. They play fearless. They play disciplined. They’re well-coached and have some guys that have been there before and have some guys that have chips on their shoulder.
“We’re not looking at the seeding or the story around it. This is a very talented basketball team, professional basketball team, and all those guys over there got game. So we respect it.”