Summer 2024

Assistant coach Ryan Saunders leans on Christ as he helps Nuggets in NBA playoffs

Powered by superstar Nikola Jokic’s 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, the Denver Nuggets withstood a late surge from the Los Angeles Lakers to win Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, 132-126, moving them one game closer to history.

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The Nuggets have never advanced to the NBA Finals since they joined the NBA before the 1976-77 season.

Nuggets assistant coach Ryan Saunders certainly hopes his first year in Denver will be the year the franchise gets over the hump. Regardless, it’s already been a season to remember.

With Saunders’ help, the team earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference — the first time in franchise history — with a 53-29 record. The Nuggets cruised through the opening round against the Minnesota Timberwolves in five games and then dispatched the Phoenix Suns in six.

Saunders is known in league circles as a defense-oriented coach. He’s brought that mindset to Denver, and it’s paid dividends. In the 2021-22 regular season, Denver ranked 14th in points allowed. This season, the Nuggets tied for eighth, allowing 112.5 points per game. Their opponents shot only 34.4% from 3-point range, tied for second in the league.

“This whole year, we’ve gone into games knowing teams’ tendencies and knowing what players do,” Nuggets rookie Christian Braun told the Denver Gazette during the Timberwolves series. “Obviously, with this team, Coach Saunders really knows what he’s doing.”

Having turned 37 years old less than a month ago and the son of longtime NBA coach Flip Saunders, Ryan has already developed quite the coaching pedigree. He spent 10 seasons as an assistant, the first five with the Washington Wizards and the next five in Minnesota, before being promoted to Timberwolves interim head coach in January 2019.

That May, the team removed the interim tag. However, he was fired in February 2021 and eventually found his way onto the coaching staff in Denver.

In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding his coaching future, Saunders sought refuge in his faith and the Bible verse he’s always held close: Proverbs 3:5. It says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

In May 2020 with the COVID pandemic causing widespread lockdowns, Saunders had an opportunity talk about what that verse meant to him on a livestream with a church.

“I’m far from the perfect Christian. I have plenty of flaws, as we all do,” he told the viewers. “But I come here tonight humbly and knowing the Bible is true. That’s a main message for me.

“Church has always been a part of my family’s life and my life, but as time went on … my relationship with Christ grew. As we all know, any relationship takes effort. It takes commitment, and it goes through its ups and downs.”

Saunders went on to discuss the challenges of talking about his faith in Christ while on the job.

“Do I bring up my faith? Because it is such a big part of my life,” he said. “You go back and forth because, ‘Hey, we need to spread the Gospel.’ You never know who it can touch. But you also want to be respectful of others too who don’t want it … shoved down their throats when they just come to watch how I design a post-up play or a baseline out-of-bounds play.

“But I have gotten to the point where I’m very comfortable always stating something on my faith during those moments.”

Here is the full hour-long video:

Saunders will speak to another crowd next month when he’s a guest at the Christians Working in Sports Conference in late June. Maybe, if things go well, he’ll have stories about coaching in the NBA Finals. Either way, he will seek to trust fully in the Lord and not in his own understanding.

Game 2 between the Nuggets and Lakers will be held in Denver on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET.

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