LOS ANGELES - Oh, how times have changed for Denver Nuggets basketball.
I remember when the Nuggets faced the Seattle Supersonics in Game 5 of the 1994 playoffs first round, making their first non-cable national TV appearance in something like five years, NBC didn't even have the Nuggets current logo available to place outside the Nuggets locker room for the interview coverage.
16 years later, when the Nuggets play the Los Angeles Lakers today they'll be appearing in their 16th nationally televised game and their third on ABC. The Nuggets, rightfully so, have become a national TV draw...especially against the Lakers...akin to the Sacramento Kings teams of about seven years ago.
Not that I have to tell Nuggets fans this, but Nuggets/Lakers games have become great theater. After losing eight straight to David Stern's preferred franchise from 2006 through 2008, the Nuggets got the monkey off their backs with a confident, albeit sloppy, 90-79 victory at Pepsi Center exactly one year and a day ago. Lakers head coach Phil Jackson called it a "garbage game", and from that point forward the Nuggets stopped playing with fear against Kobe Bryant and his entourage. Including last season's hard fought Western Conference Finals (sans an embarrassing Game 6 for Denver), the Nuggets are 4-5 against the Lakers since last February. And this season, we've seen the Nuggets completely dismantle a tired and weary Lakers team playing the second of a back-to-back without Pau Gasol and, more recently, the Nuggets - sans Carmelo Anthony - stunned the Lakers (and the entire NBA) with a 126-113 victory at Staples Center.
For the first time in ages, it seems as though the Nuggets relish playing the Lakers rather than run away from them. And it hasn't gone unnoticed by the Lakers faithful. Talking to several Lakers fan friends of mine here in Los Angeles this week, they collectively agree that the team to fear is the Nuggets because of that "no fear" factor. Not the Mavericks, not the Jazz and certainly not the Spurs or the Thunder. The Nuggets. Just as they rightly feared those Kings squads from almost a decade ago.
And yet the national media is still assuming a Lakers NBA Finals appearance, hence why Melo feels as though the Nuggets are disrespected (and I think all of us in Nuggets Nation agree this is a good thing). During the telecast of the Lakers/Mavericks game the other night, ESPN's Mark Jackson said that the Nuggets regular season victories over the Lakers will mean nothing if they are to meet again in the playoffs. I disagree. It may not mean much to the Lakers who continue to project (and perhaps have earned) an arrogance in assuming that a red carpet is laid out for them to make a third straight NBA Finals appearance. But for the Nuggets, the more they can consistently perform strongly against the West's best team and continue to feel disrespected, the better.
Taking my point a step further, I actually think the Lakers have something to prove against the Nuggets for once, even if these are just regular season games. Going down 0-3 in the season series to your primary conference rival is never a good thing, even Phil "Garbage Game" Jackson might agree with that.
On a side note, I imagine many of you - like me - will be doing a lot of "flipping" tomorrow between the Nuggets/Lakers game and the USA/Canada gold medal hockey game. Maybe we'll be lucky enough to have the US shoot out to an early 6-0 lead against the Canadians like they did against the Finns? That's about as likely as another Nuggets blowout victory over the Lakers.
SCOUTING THE LAKERS...
-Ron Artest: Of the many times I've been on the wrong side of an issue this season, at the top of the list has to be my offseason assertion that adding Artest would be a good thing for the Lakers. Artest has been awful. He's slow, can't jump, can't shoot, hasn't figured out the triangle offense and routinely gets smoked on the defensive end of the floor, his supposed specialty.
-Derek Fisher: Even though Fisher's performance has declined over a few seasons now, the Lakers could always count on Fisher to make a big shot here and there (as we saw during the last NBA Finals when Fisher made the signature shot of the series in Game 4). No more. Not only does Fisher miss shots early in games, but he misses them in the middle of games and late in games and can't play a lick of defense either.
-Sasha Vujacic: Vujacic has missed the last three games with a sprained right shoulder and will likely miss Sunday's game against the Nuggets, too. But you can't have a Lakers Stiff List without including Vujacic, the league's biggest whiner/flopper.
-Kobe Bryant: We might hate his guts in Colorado, but you have to respect his game. Fighting through an assortment of injuries all season long, Kobe has - as ESPN's Ric Bucher recently noted - changed his game into an "old man at the Y type game" and yet he remains as dominant as ever.
-Pau Gasol: Gasol is probably the best big man in the Western Conference right now, but I finally discovered his Achilles' heel: late game free throw shooting. While Gasol shoots a very respectable 81.3% from the free throw line, he has missed countless clutch free throws for several seasons now. The Nuggets shouldn't be bashful about sending Gasol to the line in late game situations.
-Lamar Odom: Despite averaging a career low 10.3 ppg and me not being able to understand a word he says in that awful new Taco Bell commercial with Charles Barkley, when Odom steps up his game the Lakers are almost unbeatable, as we unfortunately witnessed in the 2009 WCF.
Photo courtesy of AP: Mark J. Terrill