Nuggets coach Michael Malone earns All-Star nod, respect and gratitude from his players

by Mike Singer

MINNEAPOLIS – Nuggets coach Michael Malone is adept at dancing a fine line after landmark wins.

He wants his team to savor the sweet victories, but he’s always wary of celebrating anything prematurely.

Malone didn’t have a choice Saturday night.

Before he could even get a full sentence out in the exuberant postgame locker room, he was doused with water bottles, joyously shoved by his adoring team and drenched by Isaiah Thomas, who dumped an entire bucket of water on him to celebrate the Nuggets’ coaching staff earning the right to coach Team LeBron in the All-Star Game on Feb. 17.

Malone was still soaking and beaming when he spoke to reporters following their thrilling last-minute win in Minnesota, the same setting that caused them so much misery and introspection after losing Game 82 in painful fashion last season.

“Every great team, every great player that’s ever played in this league has gone through a journey,” Malone said. “We are in the middle of our journey. We’re not there yet but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

Joining Malone in Charlotte will be Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ first All-Star since 2011.

“I told Nikola, if he’s on the other team, we’re gonna double-team him every time, so his All-Star debut might be a tough one,” Malone joked.

The logistics of which players Malone will coach are still to be sorted out with the All-Star draft, but don’t be surprised if the Nuggets’ coach lobbies LeBron James, whom he coached in Cleveland, to pick his franchise superstar.

Those details and that scheming will be for another day.

Playing without their starting backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris for the second consecutive game, the Nuggets survived a last-second 3-point attempt to win their sixth game in a row and their 16th of the last 20 overall. They snapped an ominous nine-game losing streak to Houston on Friday night and then turned around and beat Minnesota 24 hours later. They are now 7-1 in the second game of a back-to-back.

“We’re winning games with guys that didn’t even play for us last year,” Malone said. “Just think about that. That gets lost on a lot of people. ‘Hey, the Nuggets are winning. Cool.’ But how we’re doing it, I think is remarkable. And that gets lost sometimes. We’re doing it with a young team, an injured team and guys that were playing in Rio Grande last year.”

Malone was referring to Monte Morris, who played all of 26 minutes last season and has averaged 18.3 points, 8.3 assists and 6.7 rebounds over their last three games. In nearly 40 minutes per game in that span, he’s turned the ball over twice.

Certainly Jokic, the Nuggets’ burgeoning MVP candidate, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for their 37-15 start. He’s the central nervous system to everything they do, the offense often short-circuiting when he doesn’t touch the ball.

“He gave me the ball more,” Jokic said when asked how Malone has empowered him. “Thank you, coach.”

But Jokic has seen his head coach mature in other ways than just recognizing the need to put the ball in his best player’s hands.

“You can see that he’s not reacting that emotionally anymore,” Jokic said. “He’s not pissed anymore that quick, not dynamite anymore. You can see that it’s positive thinking, positive talking. When we had that four-game losing stretch at the beginning of the season, he was staying positive, saying, ‘We’re going to be good. We’re going to be good.’ And we are good.”

The Nuggets held the tiebreaker with two-time defending champion Golden State that gave Denver’s coaching staff the bid, but they never would’ve been in this position if it weren’t for monumental leaps from fringe rotation players like Torrey Craig and Malik Beasley.

“He did a lot for me,” said Craig, a G-Leaguer last year, one night after scorching the Rockets for a career-high 22 points. “If he would’ve never given me the opportunity I wouldn’t even probably be here now. I can’t even speak for the things he’s done for me.”

Beasley, on the heels of his 35-point career night against the Rockets, scored 22 points on 9 for 14 shooting against the Timberwolves. If the confidence Malone has in him wasn’t evident in his recent starts, then the belief he has in himself was palpable after his 3-point shimmy Saturday night.

“(He’s) given me the opportunity,” Beasley said of Malone. “That’s been the best thing. Just allowing me to play.”

Four different Nuggets players said that what makes Malone so unique is his ability to read the locker room, cater to his team’s needs and hold his players accountable.

Will Barton, the team’s unofficial spokesman, has lived through the pain of narrowly missing the playoffs the last two seasons. He’s had to wear the ache just like Malone has.

“I feel like he’s more in tune with his players than ever — on a personal level, not just basketball — and he’s giving more of himself,” Barton said. “He’s knowing every player now. He’s knowing how everyone can go, how he can challenge everyone. It starts with Nikola. He challenges him and when you challenge your best player, you can challenge anyone on the team.”