0-6. That’s the number. 0 and 6. Six times in their franchise history the Denver Nuggets have found themselves up against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA playoffs, and six times they’ve lost. Suffice to say, it’s high time for change. With the seventh postseason series set to kick off tonight, the argument can be made this is the best Nuggets team any Lakers team will have to face.
It all started way back in ‘79. The first playoff series these two teams played against one another is also the only series where Denver was the higher seed. Behind the likes of David Thompson, George McGinnis and Dan Issel the Nuggets worked their way to a 4 seed and won a tiebreaker over the fifth seeded Lakers who were led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and supported by a bunch of guys you probably have never heard of outside of Adrian Dantley (and maybe Jamal Wilkes). Denver was one of the new darlings of the NBA. After leaving the ABA they made three straight playoff appearances and while perhaps the ‘79 team was not as successful as teams the two years prior, they were still formidable. In a three game series (playoffs were weird back then with 3 game series and first round byes) the Nuggets jumped out in front early, winning game one behind big performances from their two stars. The Lakers responded behind Kareem in game two to set up the deciding game three in Denver. The first half was back and forth but Denver looked primed for victory after a big third quarter. The Lakers came storming back in the fourth to build a lead before Denver fought back themselves. With a one point game late would you believe this...the Lakers got a favorable whistle. L.A. would end up winning by a single point.
The next matchup is one many Nuggets fans remember. In 1985 Denver was at the height of the Doug Moe/Alex English era. Issel was in his final season, Fat Lever and Calvin Natt were in their first with Denver. They were an extremely talented group, but the Lakers had become the full out showtime Lakers behind Magic Johnson. The teams met in the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers were the more talented team, no doubt, but the Nuggets had an offense built behind Moe that was the best in the league. L.A. won game one in emphatic fashion before English destroyed them in game 2 with a 40 point performance to lead the Nuggets to a 22 point blowout. When the series shifted to Denver the Lakers got the upper hand once again with another runaway win in game three. Game four was the pivotal matchup, as game fours so often are. In the first contest that was close in the series the Nuggets were right there before disaster happened. English broke his thumb in the second half (on what some might call a dubious move by Abdul-Jabbar), Natt was hobbled shortly after that, and Lever was already nursing a bad knee. Still, Natt gutted it out and had the Nuggets close in the waning moments while English watched from the bench. In true NuggLife fashion the game was tied at 116 and Lakers ball with a minute to go. The Lakers got not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE offensive rebounds made capable by...you guessed it, a favorable whistle. James Worthy tapped in the shot to go ahead and Stiffs Hall of Famer Danny Schayes fumbled the pass on the other end. Lakers would go on to win 120-116 and close out the Nuggets in game 5 with the biggest blowout of the series, putting up 153 points to Denver’s 109.
The next two series the team played are the two fairly inconsequential sweeps. In 1987 with the showtime Lakers at the height of their power the eighth seeded Nuggets provided little resistance despite having English and Lever. Blair Rasmussen was their second highest scorer in the series (you read that right) and the closest they got to a victory was a twelve point loss in game two. Fast forward twenty-one years and the Nuggets again met the Lakers in an one-eight matchup. This time Denver was led by young star Carmelo Anthony and an aging Allen Iverson. Despite winning fifty games and having a bloated payroll, the Nuggets clinched a playoff birth on the last day of the season and drew the newly reformed Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol Lakers. It...did not go well. Kobe averaged over 33 points a game, the Nuggets never got close in the first three games and by the time they had a chance to win late in game four they appeared to already be thinking of their summer vacations. The best thing to come out of that series was it inspired the start of this very website.
The other thing that series did is set the groundwork for one of the biggest trades in Nuggets history. Shortly into the 08/09 season, after the Nuggets had already jettisoned big contracts like Marcus Camby for nothing, Denver shipped Allen Iverson to the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess (McDyess refused to play again for a team that had traded him twice and once locked him in the Pepsi Center while negotiating a contract). Chauncey provided the veteran leadership Iverson never would and proved to be the missing piece Denver needed. They put together one of their best seasons ever and earned a two seed in the playoffs. For the first time and only time as a pair Melo and coach George Karl advanced past the first round after embarrassing the New Orleans Hornets and summarily dispatching the Dallas Mavericks setting up another Western Conference Finals matchup with the Kobe/Gasol Lakers.
L.A. got out in front in the series on their home floor with a narrow win in game one, some might remember an infamous inbound pass from Anthony Carter late in that game. The Nuggets proved up to the task though with a narrow victory of their own in game two in L.A. and there was real belief they could beat the vaunted Lakers. Once again, NuggLife struck. Once again, Denver botched a late inbounds pass, this time it was Kenyon Martin, and they lost a heartbreaking game three at the Pepsi Center. J.R. Smith lifted the Nuggets to a game four victory to even the series but there was this feeling that Denver had already let too many opportunities slip away. Despite a spirited effort in game 5 the Lakers emerged victorious and then Denver rolled over in game 6. Perhaps the best chance ever in franchise history to win an NBA title was gone.
The most recent playoff matchup between the two teams came after the lockout shortened season of 2012. With Carmelo Anthony now in New York, the Nuggets brought a group of young and talented players but no stars. They earned a seven seed but the task of beating the two seeded Lakers didn’t seem quite as daunting. Denver got blown out in game one before putting in a spirited effort in a loss in game 2. Back in the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center they were able to earn a defensive victory behind Ty Lawson and Javale McGee in game three but then dropped game four to go down three games to one in the series. Most considered this to be another classic George Karl first round gentlemen’s sweep at that point but the Nuggets proved that they were not going to be done just yet. Believe it or not, the team found life behind McGee again. He exploded in game five with 21 points and 14 rebounds while Denver overcame a 43 point outburst from Kobe. Lawson followed it up with his best performance of the series in game six and just like that the Nuggets forced the deciding game seven. They had that one in their grasp too. An Al Harrington three put them up four early in the fourth but then the wheels came off. They’d score just 14 points the rest of the game and ultimately lose to the Lakers once again.
0-6. That’s where we stand today. There is a strong argument to be made that this is the most talented Nuggets team to ever play the Lakers in the playoffs and we’re fixing to find out if they have what it takes to pull off the victory. If they can do it they will not only go down as undoubtedly the best team in franchise NBA history (remember the Nuggets made the finals in the final year of the ABA) but also will always be remembered as the team that finally overcame the mighty Lakers. Let’s go get it boys, our time is now.