Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone knows LeBron James better than most having spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Ceveland Cavaliers during James' first stint with the franchise.
Malone, who was with the Cavs between 2005 and 2010 saw plenty of early playoff success with James, including a trip to the Finals in 2007, where James and co. upset the Detroit Pistons in his first Conference Finals appearance, before going on to lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals.
That series against Detroit was for many the moment James truly arrived as a superstar, turning in a string of dominant performances at the tender age of 22 and on the sidelines Malone's blue collar dedication to the cause earned James' respect.
"When you work hard on your craft and you see others working just as hard on their craft, it becomes organic and it becomes mutual respect," James said of Malone.
"I know how much Coach [Malone] put into our schemes, put into our productivity, put into what we needed to do to go out and win ballgames when we were together in Cleveland. I saw that."
Malone, a defensive-minded coach played a key role on Mike Brown's staff in helping the Cavs develop into one of the league's best defensive teams, as LeBron grew to become a force on that end of the court during Malone's tenure in Cleveland, thanks to some tough love.
"I never tried to be his buddy, I wasn't trying to kiss his ass," Malone said, per Kyle Goon of the OC Register.
"I'm a coach's son. I'm going to coach. If you're not doing your job, I'm going to tell you just as I would tell anybody else. And I think he always respected that deep down inside that I at least had the courage to coach him and not try to not coach him. I think all great players deep down inside want that."
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More than a decade later the pair are on opposite sides of the ring in the Western Conference Finals, with the Los Angeles Lakers taking a 2-0 series lead after Anthony Davis' game-winning performance in Game 2, Sunday.
While the Lakers have taken a commanding lead in the series and now just need two wins to seal their first trip to the NBA Finals since 2010 - the last time the franchise lifted the Larry O'Brien trophy - LeBron knows this Nuggets team is one you can never rule out after their heroic run to the Western Conference Finals.
Becoming the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit twice in the same post-season, first against the Utah Jazz and then the LA Clippers, the Nuggets have taken the hard road to the Western Conference Finals and James, no stranger to pulling off 3-1 comebacks himself, doesn't anticipate they'll go down easy.
"Very resilient, very confident, very driven and very well-coached team," James said of the Nuggets prior to the series. "It takes a lot of energy, effort and a lot of desperation to be able to come back from a 3-1 deficit, and they did it twice."
"The respect level is out of this world … for this ballclub," James added. "And that's how we'll go into this series, understanding what they're capable of and where they stand."
Malone and the Nuggets face an uphill battle trying to slow down the Lakers and James, who is averaging 20.5 points and 8.0 assists through the first two games of the series, likening his impact to that of his own All-Star in Nikola Jokic.
"That's always the catch-22 with LeBron," Malone said, via Mike Singer of the Denver Post. "If you're scoring real easily, we got to give them help, double-team. I think like Nikola Jokic, they're the same in this regard.
"They welcome that, want an extra defender. .. They can just dissect you with their passing."
The Nuggets will look to fight back in the series when the two teams face off in Game 3 on Tuesday, September 22 at 9:00 p.m. E.T. on TSN.
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