When Lakers star LeBron James missed the final shot of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets, Denver assistant coach and former Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders had a few emotions running through him. It was a "surreal" moment, and Saunders also felt a sense of relief, even as the Nuggets swept Los Angeles.
"You've seen LeBron do that so many times where he has been able to do special things," Saunders said. "Not just to carry his team to a win, but carry his team to history. If anybody was able to come back from a 3-0 deficit, you're thinking it'd be LeBron James."
But ultimately there was excitement about a Nuggets team that became the first in the franchise's history to make the NBA Finals.
"You have to pinch yourself," said Saunders, who as the NBA's youngest head coach went 43-94 with the Wolves from 2019 to '21. "Our team had been unbelievably focused. We don't just say, 'Hey we need one more win to win that series.' Everything with us has been five more wins or four more wins, at this point, as we have an ultimate goal."
The Wolves were the first of Denver's victims this postseason, and before Denver the NBA Finals begin June 1, Saunders, 37, spoke to the Star Tribune about his first year on the Nuggets bench and facing his old team in the postseason. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q What has this year been like for you in Denver?
A Been great on really every level. Coach [Michael] Malone, there's a reason he's one of the best coaches in the NBA. It's been great to be around him and not just learn from him, but also be able to have meals and just kind of spitball about basketball. … Then for the team to have the success we've been able to have this year, it's provided a lot of really cool experiences for me as well, coaching at the All-Star Game, then making our way through the West with an opportunity to win an NBA championship.
Q You've been in charge of coordinating the defense, what have been some of the keys to your success in the playoffs on that end?
A Really just the players. Those guys, I've never really been a part of a more unselfish, gritty, tough group of players in my life. I've never seen a group of guys buy into roles. I've never seen a group of guys accept coaching and when I say that, I mean it positively. I've been around a lot of really good players that are coachable, but these guys, they've just been unbelievable in the way they want to get better, want to be held accountable, but also the way they hold each other accountable.
Q What have you come to appreciate about Nikola Jokic in being around him every day?
A Oh my gosh, I could go on and on. It's unbelievable his work capacity. How hard he works every time he steps on the floor. His approach. His commitment. Just everything that he does is with winning in mind. Everything he does is with helping his teammates in mind. … You can't help but fall in line in how he approaches it because any time he's around in the building you want to work hard for him, and he wants to work hard for everyone else involved. He leads by example in so many ways. … In everything he does, he talks about just wanting to be a great teammate, which is one of the greatest things I've ever seen in sports. I think a lot of youth, if they're not paying attention to him, they should. He has so many qualities you'd want not just in an athlete but in a person.
Q What are your favorite qualities about his game?
A I could go 1a, 1b, 1c, but his passing, his vision on the floor. His footwork in the post. How he creates open looks for his teammates, maybe not even with the basketball. He's a great screener as well — and he's a better defender than people want to give him credit for. I would challenge people to watch that, because he really is. He's a much better defender than people ever talk about. He always gives maximum effort.
Q What was it like going up against the Wolves?
A It really felt like another series. I think it goes back to what the ultimate identity of this team is — the selflessness and competition. We've had a goal all year and in that moment the Timberwolves were standing in front of our goal. It was really just about what do we have to do? Ultimately, you always like competing against your friends. I still have a lot of friends on that side of the court. I don't think that's a negative thing. You just like competing against people you care about in a lot of ways because if you are able to come out with a win, it feels all the sweeter. But I'm happy for the Wolves and the year they were able to have.
Q As someone who coached Anthony Edwards in his first year, how much have you seen him develop?
A It's been great. We coached him at the All-Star Game this year. We got to spend extended periods of time talking. His approach to everything is so mature. Not that it ever wasn't, but when you have three years in the league, you can't help but mature on a different level too. He is already a great player. He's going to continue to become a great player and climb up the rankings of the hierarchy in the NBA. He was super fun to coach — not fun to game plan against. He's so strong, the way he can score, but also a lot of other things he's continued to grow. He's just going to get better and better.
Q You and Karl-Anthony Towns are good friends, any words for him during or after the series?
A I'll always have a lot of love for Karl and things we had gone through not just on the court but off court together in my years in Minnesota. It's different when you are a part of a series. You know you have people you care about on the other side like Karl and Ant, and we all kind of knew what it was. We'd come out of the locker room, we'd see each other and were still in the midst of the series, it's just a quick hello and you keep walking. You want to keep professional, but you always embrace afterwards. You just have so much respect for your opponent.
Q Has it hit you that you'll be coaching in the NBA Finals or is it easy to stay professional?
A Not many emotions to it. It's really been just business as usual. I mean it when I say Minnesota was a group that we had to beat in the first round, then our attention turned to Phoenix. Had to beat them, then our attention turned to the Lakers. I think it's a credit to the organization and a credit to Coach Malone especially. He's kept this group really focused. Not just the players but the staff.
Q Do you think you'll be facing the Timberwolves in the playoffs again?
A You never know. I've never been one into speculation. I've always been someone that just wants to focus on what's in front of you and not worry about what's in the future. God takes care of all that. But I do know that Minnesota, they're on a great path. They got some really talented players and have some great people over there. I always will continue to wish them the best.