LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The Lakers sent the Denver Nuggets a message in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, and that message was … “We’re really good at basketball.” Look, the bubble is exhausting. You can’t expect great basketball and great letter-writing.
The Lakers’ 126-114 game was not as close as the score indicated, nor was it nearly close enough for Nuggets coach Michael Malone to scream that the referees cost his team the game, though he clearly was in no mood to send them flowers. Malone noted “an extreme (foul) advantage for the Lakers in that first half,” but said he would watch the film and see why his team was on the wrong end of so many calls. Rather than complain about the officials, he sort of reserved the right to complain about them later. It was like a weird congressional maneuver.
Malone has bigger problems. They are named LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They are the only two first-team All-NBA players still playing, and they give the Lakers both star power and flexibility. Davis is so long that he dominates the paint on both ends, and he is skilled and agile enough to stretch defenses and guard on the perimeter. James, meanwhile, has seemed to get bigger as time goes on, if only because the league has trended toward small ball. He can push the ball up the court or overpower them with his strength.
Stopping James and Davis is almost impossible, but it would be nice, in Game 2, if the Nuggets tried.
“The keys to beating this team are getting back in transition, protecting the paint, and giving them one shot,” Malone said. “Obviously we did a poor job of that tonight in all areas. We were giving up layups after we scored baskets ourselves. Our sense of urgency to get back was not anywhere near where it needed to be.”
Maybe you can understand why there was no sense of urgency. The Nuggets are playing with the knowledge that they came back from 3-1 deficits in the first two rounds. They are unfazed by a 1-0 deficit, and they always believe they can come back because they just did it twice.
But here is another way to look at it: If you have one successful night of drunk knife-juggling, you might think of yourself as a professional drunk knife-juggler who can drunkenly juggle knives whenever he feels like it. And that will not end well.
The situation might not feel urgent to the Nuggets now. But it absolutely is. The Lakers were the best team in the West in the regular season. They have been the best team in the playoffs. They have two of the best players in the league. The Lakers are far more locked in than the Clippers were. James is acutely aware of how precious each opportunity is – he is three wins away from his 10th NBA Finals, and seven wins from his fourth title, with three franchises.
After the Nuggets eliminated the Clippers, Clippers star Paul George said he never viewed this as a championship-or-bust season for his team. George was ridiculed for it, even though technically he was right: The Clippers should contend again next year. But James approaches every season like it is championship or bust. Now – unlike last year – he knows he has the team to do it. He will not relent.
The last two teams that played the Lakers in the playoffs won Game 1, then lost four in a row – a delayed sweep. The Nuggets look different. They are deeper than the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, they have more ways to win, and most importantly, they have Nikola Jokic, one of the best centers in the world and one of the league’s most unusual matchups.
The Lakers put Javale McGee on Jokic to start the game but had more success with Davis and Dwight Howard. The Lakers have so much size that they can keep pestering Jokic, and while Jamal Murray might go off all series, he can’t do this alone.
Murray spent his postgame press conference fiddling with a mask in his lap and saying his team had to play better, and he also mentioned, subtly, the Lakers’ ability to “manipulate” the referees.
It would be heartening, in this wretched and unprecedented year, if we can still blame NBA referees for something. The Nuggets should focus on making the next game will be close enough for somebody in the dark corners of the Internet to claim the NBA just wants LeBron in the finals again. It would be their gift to all of us.