Nuggets coach Michael Malone: After Game 2, stop “hating” on Gary Harris

For a split-second in Saturday’s fourth quarter, Nuggets veteran Gary Harris paused to admire his work.

He should have. It was a long time coming.

After missing nearly six months of basketball from March 11th to August 30th, Harris had his breakout game Saturday night against the Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals. If his Game 7 deflection on Utah’s Donovan Mitchell was a reminder of his impenetrable defense, then his four 3-pointers Saturday showed why the Nuggets have so much trust in him despite a turbulent season.

Denver led, 93-86, with 8:12 remaining, but its offense was scuffling. Every possession was a slog, and Los Angeles was threatening to overcome what was once a 23-point deficit.

Soon after, Harris dropped back-to-back 3-pointers. It was the second one that gave the Nuggets an insurmountable 11-point lead with 1:38 remaining when Harris milked the moment.

“They saved us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of Harris’ clutch shooting. “They got really, really aggressive (on defense) in that fourth quarter.”

Guard Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokic had carried the Nuggets early in the game but found the going tough in the fourth quarter.

“They were blitzing Jamal’s pick-and-rolls, they were double-teaming all of Nikola’s post-ups, and the ball found Gary, and without any hesitation, he stepped up,” Malone said.

Harris’s  13 points were in addition to his tremendous one-on-one defense against Paul George. The Clippers’ “second “star registered 22 points but missed 12 of 19 shots.

Harris’ “bubble” debut was stunted after arriving in Orlando about two weeks after the rest of the team and then suffering a hip strain during one of his first practices. It wasn’t until Game 6 against Utah in the first-round series that he felt comfortable enough to play. That, of course, came after a rocky season where his shooting percentages (42%) and his scoring averages (10.4 points) both dropped from a year ago.

Yet Malone’s faith never wavered in his longest-tenured player.

“I know there’s a lot of people out there that question Gary and have been hating on Gary about his offense,” Malone said Sunday. “Well, hopefully after last night’s performance, which allowed us to tie this series up, people will give Gary a little bit of a break. I trust him, and he came through for us last night.”

If Harris can find a consistent 3-point stroke heading into Monday’s Game 3, it not only offers another scoring spoke, but it simultaneously alleviates pressure on the Nuggets’ two franchise players. While some have pegged Michael Porter Jr. as the third wheel, the reality is that the rookie isn’t consistently there yet. (And, on Sunday, the Nuggets listed Jokic as questionable for Monday’s game with a right wrist sprain.)

In the Nuggets’ Game 2 win, it was a combination of Harris, Porter (11 points), Paul Millsap (13) and Monte Morris (10) that supplemented Jokic and Murray’s scoring binge. The supporting cast, coupled with unyielding multiple-effort defense, was responsible for tying the series at 1-1.

Sanity bike rides: Malone said that one of the unique quirks of the bubble has been running into opponents in restaurants, barbershops, elevators and meal rooms. Before the Nuggets’ Game 5 win over Utah, Malone said he happened to be getting a haircut at the exact same time as Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers. Malone said that Rivers had guaranteed the Nuggets would win.

In addition to that wrinkle, Malone said the bubble has given him a chance to get to know other coaches on a more personal level, including Celtics coach Brad Stevens. The two have had multiple conversations after more than 60 days inside the NBA’s complex.

Stevens recently told Boston media that he goes on daily “sanity” walks to clear his mind. When asked if he’d ever joined Stevens on one of those excursions, Malone said no.

“I’ve seen him on his sanity walks because I’m on my sanity bike rides,” Malone said. “You can keep sanity in a lot of different ways. It’s what your favorite activity is. I’m not much of a walker. Walking is okay, but I like the biking. So I do my sanity laps around the bubble.”

Hey, whatever works.