The Denver Nuggets overcame two things in their 147-140 double-overtime Game 5 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday: Damian Lillard's record-breaking performance, and their own coach's two absolutely inexcusable blunders to close regulation and the first overtime.
There's nothing you can do about Lillard. He's an asteroid. All you can do is hope he misses. Which isn't often. Lillard went for 55 points and 10 assists. He made 12 of his 17 3-pointers, breaking Klay Thompson's previous postseason record for made 3s. He shot 17 for 24 overall and committed one turnover in 52 minutes. If you give this guy an inch, he's going to take a mile.
But here's the thing: When the game was on the line the Nuggets didn't have to give Lillard that inch. They chose to. You get that? They had a stone-cold killer standing in front of them, and they handed him a knife. How they got out alive is a miracle.
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It started with under 10 seconds to play in regulation. The Nuggets had a three-point lead. The Blazers had the ball. I shouldn't have to spell this out, but you foul here every single time. It's quite possibly the dumbest loophole in sports that a team can commit an act designed to be detrimental to its own success as a way of blocking an opposing team's opportunity to tie the game, but that's the rule. You take advantage of it. Allowing Lillard, the most clutch player in the universe who regularly makes mind-bending shots look routine, an opportunity to take a potential game-tying shot is insanity. But Malone did it, and here's what it got him:
Look how long Lillard just stood inside the logo. Michael Porter Jr. had all the time in the world to rush up and foul Lillard. If it comes out that this was Malone's instruction and for some reason Porter just ignored it, then fine, we'll let Malone off the hook and start questioning whether Porter should ever see the floor again. But I doubt it. Malone ordered this nonsense.
But OK, fine. He got you once. Surely, if Malone were to find himself in this spot again, he would learn his lesson and change his strategy, right? Right? I can't believe I'm even writing this, but sure enough, at the end of the first overtime, the Nuggets once again had a three-point lead with under 10 seconds to play and once again had a chance to foul Lillard. He even did Denver the courtesy of stepping inside the 3-point line with his back turned, meaning even if he were to spring into a quick shot, the foul would still only net two free throws. Nope. They let him do it again ...
What's that old saying? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me? Well, shame on Michael Malone. There is no excuse for this even once. But to give Lillard a second shot at your throat after you somehow survived the first slash? Come on, man. Consider me in Kevin O'Connor's camp.
Damian Lillard is one of the greatest clutch shooters in the history of basketball and yet Michael Malone refuses to foul up three with seconds remaining in regulation AND overtime. Inexcusable.— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) June 2, 2021
When the second 3 went in, I impulsively tweeted that Malone should be fired. I almost immediately erased it. I didn't mean that. He should not be fired. Malone, in fact, has done a phenomenal job in Denver. I'm of the belief that if Jamal Murray was healthy, they'd be the Western Conference favorite. Malone and the Nuggets have built this thing from the ground up. Their player development has been off the charts. They're up 3-2 on the Blazers without their second-best player. Kudos.
But these decisions not to foul Lillard? Indefensible. Here's what Malone had to say about it:
Michael Malone said he didn’t want to foul Damian Lillard up 3 because he was worried about him making the shot. Said you can question lineups, decisions etc. He said all that mattered was that they won.— Mike Singer (@msinger) June 2, 2021
Say what? You were worried about him making the shot? On the first one, the man was standing inside the logo dribbling the ball. On the second one, I'll point out again, Lillard actually stepped inside the 3-point line with his back turned. Even if Lillard had thrown some nonsense over his head and banked it in, then made the free throw, it still only would've tied the game.
What's more likely? That, or Lillard hitting what is, for him, a basic shot? This is what these coaches do in this foul/not foul situation. They overthink what is actually very simple: If you let the guy shoot, only one bad thing has to happen. He has to make a shot. If you foul him, four bad things have to happen: The guy has to make the first free throw, miss the second one, then you have to give up an offensive rebound, then you have to still give up a game-winning shot after all that.
All in a few seconds.
Do the math, and there's only one answer. Foul. Malone didn't do it, twice, and he's lucky he got out with his playoff life intact.