An interesting narrative popped up during the Los Angeles Lakers Media Day and training camp. Apparently the Denver Nuggets have been talking trash all summer long. That according to Anthony Davis who, when asked about how last season ended, said on media day “it was just a lot of like the talking, all the Lakers da-, like it was just so much of that going on, like we get it, alright y’all won” and then finished his thoughts with “anytime you lose…that in itself is motivation, but also all the little talking that’s been going around all summer.” A day later Austin Reaves stated to Dave McMenamin of ESPN “I think everyone knows it was pointed at us, they can do it indirectly if they want but I think it was very obvious to the public eye. That’s why everybody was talking about it.”

This is of course flat out not true. During the series coach Michael Malone spoke on the lack of media coverage his team receives compared to the Lakers, an objective fact, and made one quip on the Pat McAfee show about not being sure if he was going to retire, a subtle jab at LeBron James who immediately after losing to the Nuggets in the WCF stated he was considering retirement. Anyone who pays attention knew there was no chance LeBron was going to retire, he’s in fact been quite adamant about staying in the league long enough to have a chance to play with his son Bronny if/when the younger James can make it to the pro level. Some, coach Malone perhaps given his joke, felt like LeBron’s statement was an attempt to keep the narrative away from the fact LA just got swept, but I like to think Bron’s brooming from the Nuggets was truly so demoralizing that he legitimately pondered quitting the game altogether. It’s way funnier that way.

During the series Bruce Brown, who no longer plays for the Nuggets, talked about how the trash talk from the Lakers got him going and how Denver specifically targeted D’Angelo Russell because he’s not a good defender (facts, and even Lakers fans will admit it). Aaaaaaand, that’s about it. Now, during the parade, Vic Lombardi who is a member of Altitude TV, the RSN that carries Nuggets games, called Michael Malone the “Lakers Daddy” and that soon got wildly misconstrued into it being a member of the Nuggets organization who said that and even that Malone himself said that. Fact of the matter is no one from the Nuggets organization is talking about the Lakers unless they are asked about it. Malone got asked about the Lakers this week by Altitude’s Katy Winge because she wanted his opinion on the litany of talk coming from Lakers players about the Nuggets during their media day. Malone wouldn’t take the bait though.

As is often the case, the Lakers fans and Nuggets fans have engaged in a war of words on social media with rivaling calls of “4-0” and “17-1.” Why is that though? Why are Nuggets fans so quick to want to dunk on Lakers fans far more than fans of any of their other playoff opponents? Why did Vic, a former Nuggets ball boy, like so many of us relish in the fact that Denver swept the Lakers? Is it because a bunch of people rocking the purple and gold wouldn’t know A.C. Green from the next guy while they claim credit for championships won when the team was in Minneapolis? Perhaps, but it actually is far more a sign of respect for the Lakers franchise. Not the fans, but the franchise itself which is undoubtedly one of, if not, the most historic and successful franchise in NBA history. When you are making constant playoff runs over several decades, you start to draw the ire of every fanbase that has lost time and again to you in the postseason. Couple that with a loud and boisterous fanbase plus preferential treatment from officials (real or perceived) and the hate comes. You can ask Phoenix Suns fans, Sacramento Kings fans, Portland Trail Blazer fans, Utah Jazz fans and on and on down the list of teams in the Western Conference. The Denver Nuggets are no different.  Let’s look back at the pain and why it means more to beat LA than anyone else.

2020 – The Bubble Western Conference finals

Everyone can remember this one, Denver found themselves down 3-1 against the Utah Jazz in the first round before turning it around and winning the series in 7 games. They then repeated the same pattern against the Los Angeles Clippers and won the Western Conference Semifinals in game 7 after falling down 3-1 in that series as well. This set up a matchup with the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the third time the two teams met for an opportunity to go to the NBA Finals. The Lakers were at their absolute strongest and arguably benefitted from the bubble more than any team given the aging LeBron and oft injured Davis had about 5 months of rest before the playoffs.

The Nuggets lost the series in 5 games, largely due to the play of none other than Dwight Howard who was a consistent pest for Jokic, but it was Game 2 that was the most painful. Playing back and forth all night the game came down to the wire, the Nuggets clung to a 103-102 lead with 2 seconds left. Mason Plumlee inexplicably left Davis on an inbound play which got him a clean look for three at the buzzer…and he buried it. Denver bounced back to win game 3 but lost games 4 & 5. The Lakers went on to play a Heat team that wasn’t all that different from the Heat that the Nuggets beat in the finals in 2023. If Plumlee keeps with his man and the Nuggets win game 2 who knows what happens and whether Jokic and company would have two rings now instead of one.

2012 – The 7th seeded Nuggets push the Lakers to the brink in the 1st round

Eight years before the Nuggets incredible bubble run they had a chance to come back from 3-1 on an LA team as well, only instead of the Clippers it was the Lakers. The post Carmelo Anthony Nuggets found their stride during that lockout shortened season, winning 38 games and earning a 7th seed and a first round date with the Lakers. Denver had faced LA 5 times previously in the postseason, all losses. It was actually not Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol that set the tone early in the series but actually Andrew Bynum whose dominant rim protection garnered him 10 blocks and a triple-double in game 1 and made the Nuggets think twice about crashing the lane for the rest of the series. Outside of a game 3 blowout for the Nuggets, the first four games of the series were all Lakers with a blowout in game 1, a double digit lead in the 4th quarter of game 2 and a Denver collapse in the final minute of game 4. It seemed very much like the Nuggets would be summarily dispatched by LA once again.

Denver flipped the script in the next two games though. They built a big lead in game 5 in LA before holding off a Lakers comeback attempt and blew the doors off of LA once they were back home in game 6. That set the stage for the Nuggets to attempt an improbable series comeback and major playoff upset. They fell behind early in game 7 before refusing to quit and rallying to take a 4 point lead in the 3rd quarter. Ultimately, too little gas in the tank and too much Gasol and Bynum in the 4th quarter sealed the Nuggets fate as they came painfully close to shocking the NBA world but couldn’t get it done.

2009 – The Melo Western Conference Finals

One of the most painful playoff series for Denver in their history when playing LA. The Carmelo Anthony Nuggets were somewhat infamous for never making it out of the first round, the one exception being 2009. After handling the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks fairly easily, the Nuggets earned themselves a date with the Kobe Bryant/Pau Gasol Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets would lose the series in 6 games, but they had perhaps the best opportunity they’ve ever had to beat the Lakers in the playoffs (save for in 2023 of course).

In game 1 the Nuggets took a 99-97 lead with a minute and a half to go but after giving up offensive rebounds on the next two Lakers possessions and coming up empty on the other side of the floor themselves, Denver trailed 101-99 with 30 seconds to go. What happened next can only be described as the most infamous play of the Melo era. George Karl subbed in 6’1″ Anthony Carter to inbound the ball over 6’10” Lamar Odom. Carter had to lob the pass high to clear Odom’s reach and as it floated through the air Trevor Ariza snatched it from Carmelo and sealed the game for the Lakers. Denver bounced back to steal game 2 though and seize home court advantage in the series…only to give it away the very next game. In game 3 once again the Nuggets found themselves up 2 with 90 seconds to go. Kobe Bryant scored the next four points to put the Lakers back up by two with just over 30 seconds to go. This time Karl elected to have Kenyon Martin inbound the ball…and got the same result. Kmart’s pass was errant, Ariza stole the ball and the Lakers salted away the game and ultimately the series. They went on to sweep an overmatched Orlando Magic team that many Nuggets fans feel would have been overmatched by Denver as well.

2008 – The first round 4 game sweep

A year prior Denver also found themselves facing the Lakers in the playoffs, only this was in round one. Denver had squeaked into the playoffs on the final night of the regular season as the eight seed despite winning 50 games and having one of the largest payrolls in the league. With Allen Iverson as their two guard, Denver simply had no defensive answer for Kobe all series long. He averaged 33.5 points per game, including an eruption in game 2 for 49, while Gasol and Odom averaged near double doubles. Iverson and Melo meanwhile were abysmal from the floor, combining to make just 68 field goals out of a total of 171 attempts. 

The embarrassing loss set the stage for major changes to the Nuggets roster. That summer they traded Marcus Camby who was one season removed from winning the defensive player of the year award to the Los Angeles Clippers for the right to swap 2nd round picks (you read that correctly). Just three games into the 2008-2009 season they traded Iverson to the Pistons for Chauncey Billups which allowed them to move Anthony Carter to the bench and elected to start a defensive wing, Dahntay Jones. 

1987 – The first round 3 game sweep

1987 wasn’t the first time the Alex English/Fat Lever Nuggets saw the Lakers in the playoffs but it was certainly the worst time they faced them. The Lakers were right in their prime, led by 27 year old Magic Johnson while the Nuggets simply lacked the talent around their two stars to make a dent in LA at all. While Magic was playing with James Worthy, Byron Scott, A.C. Green and the ageless Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, English and Lever played the majority of their minutes with the stiffiest of rotations that included Blair Rasmussen, Danny Schayes and Bill Hanzlik.

Magic averaged over 14 assists per game in the series, 39 year old Kareem dropped 28 points on Rasmussen’s head in game 2 and the Nuggets lost all three games by an average margin of 27 points. The difference between the two teams was highlighted in the elimination game three where Denver fell 140 to 103. The Lakers went on to beat the Boston Celtics in the finals that year while the Nuggets stuck with English and Lever for a few more seasons and endured two more first round sweeps (though they did make the western conference semis in ‘88).

1985 – Injuries rob Denver of a chance to go to the Finals

The ‘85 Nuggets were an incredible team. English was in his prime, Lever was finding his way with the team after being acquired in the offseason, Dan Issel was in his final season but still a double digit scorer and Calvin Natt filled every bit of the role as secondary scorer to English. Denver also had a talented big to start over Issel in Wayne Cooper, a defensive ace on the wing in T.R. Dunn and talented reserves like Mike Evans and Elston Turner to form a bench unit with Issel and Hanzlik. The team was an offensive juggernaut averaging 120 points a game (though they gave up 117 a game). They had a tough first round battle with the San Antonio Spurs and cruised through the Utah Jazz in five games in the Western Conference semis to set up the team’s first ever Western Conference Finals matchup with the Lakers.

The Nuggets came into the series banged up unfortunately. Lever hurt his knee in the Utah series and was ineffective against LA in the three games he played. Evans, Natt and Issel were also nursing injuries. Despite this, Denver still found a way to win in LA in game 2 and seize home court advantage. Sadly, they gave it right back in game 3 after LA blew out the Nuggets on their home floor and that set the stage for a pivotal, and painful game 4. A high scoring, back and forth affair, the Nuggets stuck with the Lakers behind a scoring explosion from English and Natt. English in particular was giving the Lakers all they could handle until Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand in the third quarter on what many felt was a dirty play. Jabbar ended up sealing the deal in the 4th quarter with his patented skyhook and the bruised, beaten and demoralized Nuggets got run out of The Forum in game 5.

1979 – The first meeting in the first round

The very first time these two teams saw each other was in 1979 during the David Thompson era. A young Thompson and prime Issel were Denver’s stars while the Lakers had a big 3 of Jabbar, Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes. Denver actually came into the series as the favorites with home court advantage. They even parlayed that to a win in game one which was huge considering it was a best of three series. The Lakers fought back on their homecourt in game 2 though, which set up a winner take all game 3. All of LA’s stars showed out  while Issel and Thompson matched them bucket for bucket. The game came right down to the wire but in the end it was too much Jabbar and his game winning hook shot gave the Lakers the last second victory 112-111.

Up until 2023 the Denver Nuggets had never beaten the Los Angeles Lakers in the postseason, despite several meetings. They’ve either come frustratingly close, or been clearly over matched. This time the tables turned. This time it was the Lakers, a team built on superstars wanting to be in LA, who were clearly over matched by the Nuggets, a team built on drafting and developing their stars. You’re damn right Nuggets fans are going to crow. The broom emoji has never got so much use on Twitter, but that’s just it, it’s us the fans who are doing the talking. Nikola Jokic wasn’t screaming in rage when AC threw that lob pass into Ariza’s hands, he was drinking coca-cola and cart racing. Michael Malone doesn’t feel the agony of watching English go down in Game 4, he was playing high school ball in Rhode Island being coached by his dad. The members of the Nuggets organization care about the Lakers because they are the opponent for game 1, but that’s where it ends and contrary to the narrative being pushed by some they haven’t been trash talking the Lakers all Summer. It’s been us. 4-0, here’s your broom. I’d tell you to sweep up but looks like Nikola already did that.