Even though the game was tied at halftime and the Nuggets kept the game in the six to eight point range at moments in the second half, I never felt like the Nuggets had a prayer to win this game. Most unfortunately, as well as the Nuggets have played lately they quickly reverted to the Nuggets we've seen every time they step on that Staples Center floor. You remember those Nuggets, don't you? The ones who rush shots, take too many finger rolls that roll out, play porous defense, throw too many careless passes, and - the one thing we can't control - look too damn short out there.
Regardless of the Nuggets height deficiencies, there's never an excuse not to be aggressive. As noted on this blog several times before, whenever the Nuggets commit more personal fouls than free throws attempted, they're not dictating the energy of the game (as if you couldn't tell simply by watching it). And if the Nuggets attempt less than 31 free throws, they're in for a long night. Both things happened tonight. The Nuggets shot just 29 free throws while committing 32 personal fouls and sending the Lakers to the free throw line 46 times. Even with the standard issue homer favoritism given to the Lakers by the refs, the Nuggets can only fault themselves for getting walked over tonight. The bottom line is that until the Nuggets learn to take the ball to the rack consistently and punish the Lakers on the defensive end (as Boston did in the finals last season), they're not winning a game at Staples Center for a long time.
But we must move on.
As noted in the game preview, this wasn't a must-win game for the Nuggets and they/we can't let it distract from the immediate matter at hand: beating Sacramento on Monday night. I'm not exactly sure what the Nuggets 12 or so assistant coaches do all day, but they should put all hands on deck to scout the Kings properly and figure out how they lost to them in Sacramento on March 8th. Because that game's going to be a must-win now.
In the past few weeks, the Nuggets have faced a pair of what Denver Stiffs claimed to be "the most important game of the season" - i.e. "must-win" games. The first was the Nuggets road win at New Orleans to prevent the Hornets from securing a possible season-ending tiebreaker. And the second was the Nuggets home win against division rival Utah to put enough distance between themselves and the Jazz, in addition to preventing the Jazz from holding a season-ending tiebreaker.
One week removed from that Jazz game and two weeks removed from that Hornets game, the Nuggets find themselves facing another big game when they face off against the Lakers in Los Angeles tonight. But is this a must-win game? Fortunately or unfortunately, no, it's not for our Nuggets. Even if the Nuggets lose tonight, they're still in prime position to secure the second seed in the conference and at worst, the third seed.
Not so for the Lakers. The Lakers are currently one game behind Cleveland, but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Should the Lakers lose tonight, their chances of having home court advantage throughout the duration of the playoffs and NBA Finals are greatly diminished. And with a possible loss looming at Portland tomorrow night (even this incarnation of the Lakers can't win in Portland), the Lakers will be putting forth their best effort tonight against a team they're confident they can beat.
Must-win or not, it's a big game for the Nuggets. The Nuggets continue to get disrespected by the nation's top NBA pundits as they're rarely mentioned in conversations about the West's top contenders. Every time you watch a commentary on the playoffs on either TNT, ESPN or NBATV, you hear about Utah or New Orleans or Houston or San Antonio (before Manu Ginobili went down for the season) possibly being able to contend with the Lakers, but never Denver. Even Jeff Van Gundy during last Sunday's ABC broadcast suggested that the Mavericks could beat the Nuggets in a playoff series. And of course we all remember Lakers coach Phil Jackson's derisive comments about the Nuggets last victory over the Lakers as a "garbage game."
A Nuggets victory tonight serves notice not just to the Lakers but to the entire NBA that their current eight-game winning streak isn't a fluke, that they can beat anyone anywhere and will be ready for the Lakers when the conference finals begin.