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Nuggets Journal: Denver’s film session zags and a key NBA Finals example

AUSTIN, Texas — Every sports fan adores the premise of a galvanizing team meeting. There might not be a more universally beloved trope than the players and coaches of your favorite team coming together in a time of adversity to lift up one another — as long as it turns the tide of a high-stakes game or series.

What was the biggest story (not directly involving Taylor Swift) in the last 24 hours before this year’s Super Bowl? Travis Kelce’s emotional speech to the Chiefs the night before the game. And that one was actually a slight anomaly; media reports of these behind-the-scenes Hollywood moments tend to surface in hindsight after a win, and only a win.

Think Jeff Green hosting the Nuggets for dinner at his South Florida house after the team’s Game 2 loss in the NBA Finals last summer. Or Andrew Cogliano calling a players-only meeting after the Avalanche lost a potential Stanley Cup clincher the year before. (When I was on the Avs beat, I was working on a profile of coach Jared Bednar’s tenure and asked him about that meeting, along with another one that Bednar called himself during the second round. “We had meetings in the Vegas series too, you know,” he wryly pointed out, referring to the 2021 playoff series in which Colorado blew a 2-0 lead.)

Neither the Nuggets nor Avs faced particularly dangerous obstacles en route to their championships — both avoided any elimination games during 16-4 playoff runs — but the urge for there to be A Turning Point is insatiable nonetheless.

So here’s another new example.

Before that well-documented dinner at Green’s, the Nuggets first convened for an atypical, “very honest” film session upon arrival in Miami, coach Michael Malone recalled Wednesday.

“I really felt that was so impactful,” he said. “Because that film session was not me — I picked 17 clips — not me (talking through them). I gave each player a clip, and I said, ‘You tell me what you see and what should have happened.’ And all the players took ownership. We learned from it, which is what film sessions are for. It’s not a blame game.”

“I think everybody realized our mortality,” said Reggie Jackson, a film session participant despite not being in the rotation. “We hadn’t lost at home at the time in the playoffs, so I think after that one, being 1-1, knowing that you’ve got five games left to be the last one standing, you could tell. Everybody kind of put it out there, and I think you could hear it in their voices why it meant so much. … It was a great film session.”

Malone and the Nuggets have been spraying themselves with nostalgia repellant all season. Ring night was the last hoorah. Since then, they’ve been mostly disinclined to engage in any questions associated with 2023 playoff memories. That’s the past.

But this was their first time back at Kaseya Center since winning Games 3 and 4 to all but wrap up the Finals. Flashbacks were human instinct on this trip.

Plus, there might actually be some legitimate ongoing relevance to that meeting.

Most of Malone’s film sessions aren’t formatted that way. But sometimes when the Nuggets need a jolt, they’ll zag.

“I know sometimes Coach does do that, where he wants (players) to walk through the film,” Michael Porter Jr. said. “If he did that last year, I’m sure we probably needed it.”

The standard routine involves Malone or an assistant coach (often offensive specialist David Adelman or defensive specialist Ryan Saunders) presenting film and leading the session. But Malone credits Jeff Van Gundy, and by extension Pat Riley, for passing down the concept of interactive film.

“Asking your players questions, quizzing your players — what does that show you?” Malone said. “One, it keeps them on their toes. Are they paying attention? Do they know what they should know? And two, it shows me this: Have I done my job? If they don’t know the answers, I’ve failed as a coach. So quizzing guys and having interactive film sessions has always been beneficial for us. … I’ll ask somebody to tell me about this clip — they’re not even in the game (during the clip) — I want you to tell me what’s wrong or what’s right with this clip. Because if we’re trying to get our guys to communicate on the court, you’ve also gotta get them to talk to each other off the court.”

Players were hard-pressed to remember their own specific clips from the NBA Finals session, but they echoed the sentiment that it’s important for players to feel they have a voice in analyzing possessions.

“We’ve had one of those this year, too,” Christian Braun said. It was around the All-Star break. “Just talking it out, making sure we’re on the same page. Making sure everyone has the principles.”

In a seemingly more competitive Western Conference, it almost feels inevitable that a 2024 championship run would require more adversity. Maybe a Game 7 this time, or at least a series deficit.

Whatever the scenario, more communal film work seems equally likely if the Nuggets need a remedy for a playoff setback. But whether the next session becomes known is probably dependent on its success.

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