Since joining the NBA in 1976, the Denver Nuggets have met up with the Los Angeles Lakers five times in the Western Conference playoffs ... losing all five series and having won just four total games combined in those five series. Could the Nuggets reverse history and best the Lakers this time around?
With the red-hot Nuggets winning 8 of their last 10 games set to face off against the Lakers, who won just 6 of their last 10 and will be missing Metta World Peace throughout much of the playoffs' first round, many Nuggets fans believe that this will be the franchise's best chance to beat the hated Lakers in a playoffs series. Having come up empty in five previous attempts to beat the Lakers, the Nuggets are certainly due.
Here's a rundown of the previous Nuggets versus Lakers playoff series, going back to their first match up in 1979. (Before we get started, I have to give a huge "thank you!" shout out to Basketball-Reference.com and the Sports Illustrated Vault for making this post possible.)
In the five playoff series played between the Nuggets and Lakers, the Nuggets have been considered the favorites (barely) just once ... and that was in 1979. Even though both teams finished with 47 wins, the Nuggets won the season series 3-1 and thus had home court advantage for their first round, three-game series (back then, teams played best of three for the first round). Moreover, this was a Nuggets squad that had some real talent with the likes of David Thompson, George McGinnis and Dan Issel leading the way whereas the Lakers were still floundering in the pre-Magic Johnson era.
The Nuggets won Game 1 at McNichols Arena 110-105, led by 30 points from Issel and 27 from Thompson. The Lakers exacted some revenge in Game 2, winning 121-109 thanks to 32 points from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and 25 points from former Nuggets assistant coach Adrian Dantley).
But the heartbreaker came in Game 3. Even though the Nuggets put up 111 points, got 24 from Issel and 28 from Thompson, Abdul-Jabbar nailed a 10-foot hook shot with 12 seconds remaining to deliver the Lakers the victory.
The Nuggets never recovered from that game ... literally. After coming into the NBA strongly in 1976 with 50, 48 and 47 win seasons, the Nuggets won just 30 games in 1979-80 and didn't reappear in the playoffs until 1982.
Arguably the best and most loved Nuggets team of all time - especially considering how stacked the NBA as a whole was with just 23 teams back then - the 1984-85 Nuggets won a Western Conference second-best 52 games and marched into the conference finals led by Alex English, Fat Lever, Calvin Natt, Dan Issel, Wayne Cooper, a cast of Stiffs and the biggest Stiff of them all: head coach Doug Moe. Unfortunately, their opponent - the Lakers - had won 10 more games than Denver in the regular season and owned the regular season series 3-2.
Entering the conference finals, the offensive-juggernaut Nuggets scored at least 111 points in every playoff game and managed to score at least 123 points six times, 130 points twice and 140 points once. Against the Lakers, the high scoring continued as the Nuggets scored 122 points in Game 1 ... while the Lakers scored 139 points. But playing at The Forum for Game 2, the Nuggets clobbered the Lakers 136-114 and it seemed as though we had a real series on our hands!
That optimism would be short lived, unfortunately. The Lakers came into Denver for Game 3 and were all business, winning 136-118. In that game, Magic Johnson had 14 rebounds and 15 assists ... but missed on a triple-double as he had just 7 points (the Lakers had no problem finding offense as Abdul-Jabbar put up 27 and James Worthy scored 28 on 12-17 shooting).
The Nuggets responded strongly in Game 4, but lost English in the third quarter to a broken thumb - after he scored 28 points! - and lost the game 120-116 due to some suspect no-calls on Abdul-Jabbar after he tangled with Nuggets center (and all-time Stiff) Danny Schayes throughout the affair. Further proof that when you play the Lakers in the playoffs, you're playing against the referees, too.
Without English and Natt - who had 28 points in Game 4 - as banged up as ever, the Nuggets had nothing left in the tank for Game 5 and were trounced 153-109 at The Forum. This was at once the greatest and most depressing time to be a Nuggets fan in franchise history.
Somehow, someway Moe coached the 37-win Nuggets into the playoffs where they were set to play the 65-win Lakers (a team that had accumulated three championship rings since Johnson's arrival in 1979). When asked to handicap the series, Moe famously uttered: "We got no shot to beat the Lakers."
Not that a little optimism from their head coach would have helped. In their best-of-five series, the Lakers made quick work of the Nuggets winning Games 1, 2 and 3 128-95, 139-127 and (most embarrassingly since they played in Denver) 140-103. The Lakers would then go on to win their fourth championship of the Magic Era.
Interestingly, the Nuggets rebounded from that playoff disaster to win an NBA franchise-best 54 games in the 1987-88 season. And had they not been upset by the Mavericks in the playoffs' second round that season, they'd have rematched with the Lakers for the 1988 Western Conference Championship.
With an $84 million roster loaded with talent that included Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin, the 2007-08 Nuggets were talking 60 wins before the season began. The Lakers, meanwhile, were coming off three consecutive disappointing seasons and superstar Kobe Bryant was demanding a trade during the pre-season. Halfway through the season the fortunes of these two teams were in reverse as the Lakers played to the top of the conference and acquired Pau Gasol before the trade deadline while the void-of-chemistry Nuggets struggled just to make the playoffs at all and finished 8th in the Western Conference standings.
Finishing just 7 games apart in the overall standings, you wouldn't know it as the Lakers embarrassed the Nuggets in the playoffs' first round with a 4-0 sweep (the first seven-game series sweep in Nuggets' franchise history).
In that series, the bad experiment that was Melo/Iverson came into full view as the players squabbled with each other and head coach George Karl, culminating in Game 3 with Melo's "Just don't sit there!" rant at Karl for all the Pepsi Center fans to hear and his equally bad "Yeah. We Quit" rant after the game ... a game the Nuggets lost in humiliating fashion, 102-84. The Nuggets played slightly better in Game 4, but lost anyway 107-101.
Here was my recap of that disastrous series, a series - and a season - that would have immediate repercussions.
The Nuggets organization responded to the disaster that was the 2007-08 season by trading Camby away (for nothing) and moving Iverson for Chauncey Billups soon into the 2008-09 season. Two moves that would alter the franchise positively for years to come. Additionally, with just one season remaining on his contract Karl found renewed vigor for coaching and coached the hell out of a squad that was less talented than their 2007-08 predecessors. Karl even got the prickly K-Mart to play his way for once.
A team predicted by many to miss the playoffs altogether, the 2008-09 Nuggets proved to be the ultimate underdogs and caught the NBA by surprise en route to a franchise-tying best 54 wins. And for the first time in the George Karl Era, the Nuggets got out of the first round of the playoffs - beating the Hornets in Round 1 and then the Mavericks in Round 2 to set up a conference finals date with the Lakers, a team the Nuggets struggled against in the regular season.
This time around, the Nuggets didn't back down against the Lakers and got as close to the NBA Finals as any Nuggets team in franchise history (which, regrettably, isn't saying much). Game 1 could have gone either way, with Melo going off for 39 points and playing surprisingly good defense on Bryant down the stretch. But with the Nuggets down just two points with possession and about 10 seconds to go, an errant Anthony Carter inbounds pass - stolen by Trevor Ariza - cost the Nuggets the game ... and perhaps the series.
The Nuggets came back stronger in Game 2, beating the Lakers 106-103 thanks to another monster Melo game (34 points, 9 rebounds). Heading back to Denver for Games 3 and 4, all the Nuggets had to go was hold serve on their home court, putting them in position to close out the series in Games 5 (at Los Angeles) or 6 (at Denver).
Instead, the Nuggets managed to give Game 3 away. Melo was dogged by foul trouble and poor shooting all game (he actually didn't shoot enough with just 13 shot attempts) and yet the Nuggets were still in position to win the game, finding themselves down 2 points with just 36 seconds to go and possession of the ball. And yet again, an errant inbounds play (this time from Melo passing to K-Mart) and an Ariza steal cost the Nuggets the game. Lakers were up 2-1.
The Nuggets responded well in Game 4, trouncing the Lakers 120-101. But those who followed this series closely had the suspicion that the Lakers were happy with the split (evident by barely playing their starters in the second half) and the Nuggets were in trouble. Indeed they were. As if Bryant and the Lakers had been toying with the Nuggets for Games 1 through 4, the Lakers took care of the Nuggets easily from the fourth quarter of Game 5 onward.
Including that final quarter of Game 5, the Lakers outscored the Nuggets 146-110 through Game 6 to easily wrap up the series. It was as if the Nuggets didn't know what hit them, and both Melo and Billups played poorly in Games 5 and 6.
Here's hoping that the 2011-12 Nuggets go where no Nuggets team versus the Lakers has gone before. Go Nuggets!!