How a questionable elbow began a one-sided rivalry

Stephen Dunn

With the Nuggets recent victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, and subsequent gloating over the Lakers troubles, it causes one to wonder ... when did this inferiority complex with the Lakers start? In actuality it starts with a strategically placed elbow that altered the course of a series ... in 1985.

In 1985 the Los Angeles Lakers were the best team in basketball. With Players like Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy they were the class of the NBA's Western Conference. This is indisputable. What is also indisputable is the 1985 Nuggets team was not as good (however, still quite potent) and most likely was destined to go down to the Lakers no matter what.

However, the 1985 Western Conference Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Lakers was intriguing for many reasons. Not the least of which was how a broken down, injured and bruised Nuggets team should have extended the Lakers far beyond the 4-1 series victory that the team from LA eventually had. Game 4 of the series, with the Lakers up 2-1 changed everything.

The first three games of the series were odd because the teams were alternating blowouts. WIth the Lakers taking Games 1 and 3, and the Nuggets taking Game 2. Game 4 was close the entire way, hotly contested, and ultimately came down to one singe play.

With about five minutes left in the third quarter of Game 4, while contesting for a rebound of a missed shot ... a clearly frustrated Kareem (who was having a monster game, despite being double teamed almost every time he touched the ball) spotted Alex English out of the corner of his eye and swung his elbow at the Nuggets star small forward. You can watch the play below:

1985 NBA Playoffs: Lakers at Nuggets, Gm 4 part 8/12 (via lakeptic)

The "incident" occurs at 1:14 of the video. While Jabbar would later deny it, this for all intents an purposes looks deliberate. It broke English's thumb (who up to that point had 30 points and was basically getting any shot he wanted) and essentially doomed the Nuggets for the rest of the series. Later in the game Dan Issel would succumb to an injured hamstring.

While the Nuggets put up an incredible fight considering how undermanned they were (Fat Lever had his knee scoped before the playoffs and was only operating at maybe 60% capacity) and barely lost Game 4 by the score 120-116. With both English and Issel out for Game 5 in Los Angeles, the Nuggets were a lost cause and were blown out by 44 points. I have zero doubt that if English continued to play in that series that the Nuggets would have pulled out Game 4 and tied the series at two games a piece. From then on it would have been a best of three. While I am still convinced the Lakers would have won anyway, the tone and tenor of the match would have been altered. From that moment on, the Nuggets fans resentment towards the Lakers became a fevered pitch.

A couple years later English would sue Kareem (for failing to repay a series of loans that English made to him in 1985) ... but for Nuggets fans the dye was cast during that '85 series. The hopelessness of playing the Lakers dawned on everyone. Throughout their playoff history, the Nuggets have played the Lakers six times, which ties them with San Antonio for the a Nuggets opponent most faced in the post-season. Each time has been a loss.

A frustration coupled with a feeling of not being on equal footing has haunted the Nuggets fans. In the next meeting between the two teams in the 1986-87 playoffs the Lakers paraded and danced up and down the floor on the Nuggets in their first round series, with Magic Johnson hitting half-court shots and generally just showboating. It was humiliating and served further notice that the Nuggets couldn't compete.

You can look at an overview of the Nuggets playoff misery versus the Lakers here in Andrew Feinstein's great column about it in April of 2012.

While I believe the Nuggets 1987-88 squad (that won 54 games in maybe the best-overall season in NBA history) would have put up a better fight than the one in 1985 against the Lakers, that particular team underachieved and inexplicably lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the second round. As the playoff losses to the Lakers resumed yet again in after the 2007-08 regular seson, Nuggets fans anger and hopelessness again came to the fore.

This year feels different. While the Lakers still have Kobe Bryant, their composition seems to be at odds with their talent. Their chemistry seems to be at odds with their coach and their owner's son (Jim Buss) seems to not really know what he's doing. I saw a Nuggets squad on Sunday night (Jan. 6th) expect to win against the Lakers, and they did. Even on the second night of a back-to-back. Ty Lawson's rather ill-timed gloating after the fact notwithstanding.

Listen, every team feels this way toward the Lakers. However, not many of those teams have suffered the playoff humiliation to the Lakers the Nuggets have. Great players such as Alex English, Dan Issel, Calvin Natt, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups never got to taste anything remotely like playoff success against them. While there is a bit of glee taken in the Lakers recent misfortune (I believe the German word for it is schadenfreude) you can forgive Nuggets fans for smiling a bit at their oldest and truest NBA nemesis.

***

Denver Nuggets Tickets

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