When the Denver Nuggets face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first game of the first round of the NBA playoffs on Sunday afternoon it will be a HUGE game for these young players. That much is true. Yet, in the grand scheme of things the team, and the Nuggets fans themselves need to do one thing...
You can feel it can't you?
The tightening of the chest. The anxiety ... the dread ... the endless thinking about the officials screwing the Nuggets yet again when they play the Lakers. About David Stern and his "Stern button" ready to push at any moment to alter the outcome of a any Nuggets/Lakers game. Oh god, you think to yourself, not again!
I have a message for you, and quite frankly to this young Nuggets team. Relax. Creating straw men arguments to anticipate a negative outcome is, as Homer Simpson would say "loser talk". While we can all acknowledge that the Lakers have benefited from - uhhhh - suspicious officiating (cough...Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals...cough) to constantly harp on how the Nuggets are at a disadvantage to the Lakers is doing Nuggets fans a disservice as well as the team.
When you consistently think you are climbing uphill, you give yourself a built in excuse to fail. What I've enjoyed about this Nuggets team going down the stretch is that they have won all the big games (and fell short in a game they should have won against the Clippers) and have beaten the teams they should have. This focus and dogged determination will be the reason the Nuggets win. IF they come up on the short end of the stick then lets hope that the built-in blame the refs talk goes away. I hope the team understands this.
What will win this series for the Nuggets? A couple of things. First off, as my colleague Andrew Feinstein so accurately pointed out ... Metta World Peace may prove to be MVP of the Nuggets right now. To be perfectly frank, if MWP was in this series I would believe the Nuggets' chances of victory would be diminished. It is a fact that my boy, Danilo Gallinari - much like Carmelo Anthony before him - struggles against MWP's aggressive bodying and willingness to be tough. Now that the former Ron Artest is not in the six games of this series I will expect Gallo to have slightly more free rein. It was a great sign that Gallo was hitting his jumpers more consistently in the last game. While I don't doubt his wrist and thumb are still bothering him, it seems like he has found a way to struggle through it.
Another reason the Nuggets may win this series is because of Arron Afflalo. While I wouldn't call him a Kobe Bryant "stopper", he is a guy who annoys the piss out of Kobe. For some reason when you piss Kobe off he likes to shoot ... alot. When Kobe does that the Lakers struggle. If AAA is able to tick Kobe off just enough, the Nuggets may get Kobe to go in to volume shooter mode early in the game. That's a big if obviously, but this is a game where I believe that AAA's defense will be just as important as his offense. This is also where Ty Lawson will play a big factor. While Ramon Sessions is an upgrade of Derek Fisher, he's not exactly Gary Payton on defense either. Ty, as always will need to be consistent and aggressive from the get go.
One problem the Nuggets have is with Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Quite frankly this is the area the Nuggets get killed in when they are on defense. There's no easy answers for this. It seems that rookie Kenneth Faried lacks the size to cover a "power forward" like Gasol. And Bynum just eats the Nuggets alive. Timofey Mozgov tends to have ok games against Bynum, and in the last game JaVale McGee did a serviceable job on the big center. Yet, one hopes that the Nuggets do the best they can in that situation. If they play Bynum well enough,and contain Gasol the Nuggets have more than a fighters chance against the Lakers.
Let's agree though, Nuggets fans, to not automatically point to officiating to be the grand arbiter of the Nuggets' fate. In the end, it will be the Nuggets' skill, combined with whatever good coaching George Karl can muster for the playoffs that will determine this series. I'd like to think that our team, and brand of basketball will be the reason the Nuggets prevail. I think they can. The loss of World Peace is a bigger deal than many are willing to admit, and this my friends may be a huge reason the Nuggets can get past the Lakers for the first time in their playoff history.
Either way, it will be a great series. GO NUGGETS!