The party in the back of the plane wasn’t nearly as fun for Michael Malone as the party on a screen right in front of him.
While Nuggets players and staff were living in the euphoric moment, the head coach couldn’t help but relive the immediate past, just to make sure it wasn’t fantasy.
“Felt like it took forever to take off, and the front of the plane had some music playing. Sounded pretty lively,” Malone said. “But the back of plane was — I was nervous to go back there. They said, ‘Coach, you don’t want to go in the back.’ So I stayed away from the back and kept my head down.”
“It was a good flight,” point guard Jamal Murray said.
Instead, Malone spent that first portion of the Nuggets’ victorious flight home from Los Angeles watching the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
Malone watched Nikola Jokic’s one-legged circus 3-pointer and wondered, “have we come up with a name for Nikola’s shot?” He settled on the “Sombor Sling” with reporters back in Denver four days later. He watched the final four seconds, when Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray combined to deny LeBron James and clinch Denver’s sweep. “All the plays we made down the stretch,” he said, asking himself the entire time, “is this series really over?”
It was. The Nuggets were going to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Begone, Lakers.
Next up: A nine-day wait.
The Nuggets practiced Friday for the first time since Monday’s Game 4 triumph over the Lakers, still not knowing whether they’ll face the Miami Heat or Boston Celtics. The Eastern Conference Finals have tightened to 3-2 after the underdog Heat led 3-0, meaning the Nuggets remain in limbo as to whether Game 1 on June 1 will be played in Denver or Boston.
“That’s a great series right now,” guard Bruce Brown said.
In the meantime, the Nuggets have used their sweep to take a brief breather this week. Brown enjoyed the spring weather on the gold course — “the first day of golf I played pretty well; the second day I was terrible,” he said — and Malone has tried to focus on his at-home life, fearing his wife and kids would “leave me” if he obsessed over basketball too much. Murray turned on a hockey game at home Thursday night.
He knew the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights only as the green team and the white team. But featured on the broadcast was a lesson that Murray thought applied to the Nuggets’ intensified defense in these playoffs. “They said one team was playing with a certain intent, a certain intensity,” he said. “Whether they were turning it over or not, whether they missed a shot or not, they played with a certain aggression and awareness. You could visibly see it.”
Likewise, Murray labeled “intent” as the defining factor that has helped the Nuggets to this position, where not only have they made history but have the luxury of waiting for a challenger.
“We take the rest, yeah, but you don’t want to pick up bad habits throughout this week,” he said. ” … We don’t want to relax and just wait.”
Murray emphasized that the Nuggets are focusing on themselves for now, rather than the specifics of an unknown adversary. Brown, asked if he prefers to know the opponent sooner or if he prefers the rest advantage provided by a longer series, said matter-of-factly: “Honestly, either. I don’t care.”
Denver has a coach assigned to scouting both the Celtics and Heat as that series continues Saturday with Game 6. Malone and Nuggets players are keeping an eye on it. Malone praised both teams Friday for their star power and their depth. “Complete teams,” he called them.
He referred to his own roster the same way. The Nuggets were complete enough to muscle through the West. So before the long wait for a historic occasion began, they were certainly entitled to a little fun on that flight.
“Everybody on the plane was standing up,” Murray said. “It wasn’t just the players. So it was nice to have the staff mingling.” On NBA Today, he added that Peyton Watson had the aux cord.
Before Brown got tired and went to sleep, “I was all throughout the plane, talking to everyone through the front and the back,” he said.
What exactly was going on in the back, though?
“I didn’t see anything,” Malone said. “I didn’t hear anything.”
Has his memory faded that fast?
“Oh, I remember everything,” he said.