In 1888 Rudyard Kipling wrote The Man Who Would Be King, which would later be turned into a movie starring Sean Connery. It featured an adventurer who tried to claim a country for his own and was declared a god by its inhabitants after apparently being shot by an arrow but coming out unscathed. When he tries to claim a bride as his prize, however, she bites him and he bleeds, showing the lie and leading to his death. Marvel did a similar thing more than a century later with Thanos and his now famous “all that for a drop of blood” line:
The importance is not how much blood is drawn, but that blood can be drawn at all. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said in Predator: if it bleeds, we can kill it. In Game 1 of these Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers simply overwhelmed Denver with its pace of play and capitalization on mistakes. The only bleeding was by Denver; the Nuggets were blown out and had to adjust. In Game 2 they lost on a last-second shot, and LeBron James was up 2-0 on Denver despite the Nuggets having the lead with mere seconds to go. Despite that weakness, the Nuggets had to be asking, “how do you stop one of the greatest players to ever live, playing for one of most storied franchises in basketball?”
In Game 3, though, the Nuggets took the lessons from that “drop of blood” that the LeBron-led Lakers showed in Game 2 and hurt the Lakers, taking what amounted to an easy victory despite a near-collapse as a panicked Lakers squad shifted to zone and threw every wrinkle they had at the Nuggets down the stretch. Through three games, the Nuggets are playing the Lakers basically even, with the one shot at the end of Game 2 looming large as the only difference so far between the squads.
That spot of blood on the cheek was big in Game 2. Withstanding the run from the Lakers in Game 3 was bigger. Nikola Jokic was 8 when LeBron James started his NBA career. Jamal Murray was 6. King James has the most wins in playoff history, and put up the first 30-point triple doubles in Lakers history, showing his game is still where it needs to be to lead yet another team to a title. In a year without super teams, this is the year for him to add another ring and another chapter. He is someone they idolized, on the biggest stage they’ve ever played on, and trying to dethrone both a King and a god might seem impossible. It’s good to see him as something less than an immortal.
The Nuggets are an extremely young team, especially at traditional leadership spots. All their offensive creators are 25 and under, and watching King James have his crown tilted even slightly askew is good for everyone on the Nuggets who has to try to even the series tonight. And it’s not just the young players: Paul Millsap was 0-10 against LeBron in the playoffs before game 3. Getting that monkey off his back doesn’t hurt either. It puts the pressure back on the Lakers as the Team of Destiny to play like it.
The Lakers aren’t used to feeling this. They are the Chosen Ones. A title is their right, their destiny, absolute and inviolate. Being seen as mortal or flawed is not a normal experience, as shown by their immediate complaint to the league about Lebron’s lack of free throws. “We are special!” they cry. “We don’t deserve this!”
Nuggets fans have no understanding of their team receiving special treatment from referees. Announcers and TV personalities still can’t get their names right, occasionally to a level bordering on xenophobia. Nuggets fans are used to topping out before the Western Conference Finals, and certainly used to coming up short against the Lakers. Maybe that will happen again, or maybe with a different team the dice will come up differently this time. But regardless, Denver and its stars are showing the same lack of fear they have shown all playoffs. Early failure is just part of the process. Probing for weakness is what they do, and over the last couple of games Los Angeles and King James have shown some vulnerabilities that the Nuggets will have to exploit if the want to overtake the Lakers. Their ability to treat every problem on its own merits, regardless of the players across from them, is admirable.
That lack of deference to who they are facing continues to serve them well. LeBron is a King, there’s no denying it. He’s on the Mt. Rushmore of NBA stars, and deservedly so. But the Nuggets can’t afford to think of him as a historical juggernaut - they have to think of him as a man they can beat in another few scrimmage-like games to get to the NBA Finals. So far, they’re doing a good job of separating myth from man. Hang his jersey, put him in the Hall of Fame, fete him forever. Just don’t crown him until he wins, because this year’s title is still currently up for grabs, and there are no gods here.