The Nuggets find themselves in a familiar position in the Western Conference finals, trailing the Lakers, as they trailed the Jazz and the Clippers in these same playoffs, 3–1 in the series. Denver has been the most exciting team in the postseason, with superstar turns from Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, and a resilience seemingly born of ignorance. And yet, because of their propensity to fall behind in every series, the Nuggets have also been the most frustrating team in the bubble. If Murray, as he demanded after Denver eliminated the Clippers, really wants the narrative around his team to be different, then the Nuggets need to develop a killer instinct.
Again, Denver deserves all the credit in the world and then some for continuing to climb out of massive holes to win series, particularly when the incentive to return home is greater than ever before. But it’s one thing to win games when you’re the desperate team, simultaneously playing with no pressure because nobody really expects you to win. If the Nuggets want the narrative to be different, if they want to be considered one of the best teams in the league and not a feel-good story, if they want the burden of expectations, then they need the ability to get out in front of teams and stay there.
The Lakers are certainly in a great position in any series by virtue of employing LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They’ve also taken care of business in nearly every single game of the playoffs. For all the talk of L.A.’s flaws—the half-court offense, the inconsistent role players, the so-so shooting—the Lakers have also shown a remarkable flexibility in doing whatever it takes to win a game on a particular night. Even on nights when James or Davis post monster stat lines but aren’t clearly dominant, the Lakers can scrounge up a victory in the margins, as they did in Game 4 with timely defensive stops and gutty offensive rebounds. Up 2–1 against an underdog, Los Angeles looked like the more desperate team in the fourth quarter Thursday night. That should never happen to Denver.
While it’s fun as fans to watch the Nuggets go seven games in every series they’ve had with their current core, it also speaks to an inability for Denver to truly elevate itself from its competition. The Nuggets have had their opportunities in this series. In Game 2, Mason Plumlee’s confusion on the final play of the game allowed Anthony Davis to spring free for his game-winning three. In Game 4, after already having a subpar night for his standards, Jokic probably sat a minute too long to start the fourth quarter, then returned to the bench almost immediately after picking up two quick fouls. Denver’s energy often seems to be focused on hanging around until as late as possible and rarely has it shown the capability, in the playoffs at least, to truly pull away.
That’s the next step for the Nuggets. Murray and coach Michael Malone have both made it clear in the bubble this team expects to be treated as more than just a novelty or quirk. But that means Denver needs to be able to take care of business not only when its back is against the wall, not only when everyone has counted the team out, and not only when the opponent has let its guard down. Jokic, for example, has been incredible during the restart. He’s really embellished his playoff résumé by turning in stellar performance after stellar performance in elimination games. But if he plays better in Game 4—in which he scored only 16 points and took the same number of shots as Jerami Grant—Denver would not be facing elimination in the first place.
Look, it’s easy from thousands of miles away to say the Nuggets need a more aggressive attitude. The truth is, in this series, as great as Denver’s two best players are, they still aren’t on the level of LeBron and AD. If the Nugs lose to the Lakers, it realistically won’t be some massive disappointment. Denver’s growth over the last three years has been almost comically linear, from missing the playoffs by one game, to blossoming a second-round team, and now emerging as a conference finalist. But truly great teams don’t consistently find themselves in 3–1 deficits round after round. That’s the new obvious milestone for the Nuggets. If Denver wants a new narrative, then it can’t wait until it has no choice to put its best foot forward. Finding yourself down 3–1 for a third straight series isn’t an accomplishment; it’s why the Nuggets aren’t being taken as seriously as they want to be.