Nuggets can’t lose to Lakers, unless they let refs, ghosts beat them

In this tussle between a Joker and the King, the Nuggets can’t lose, unless they get distracted by crying foul or spooked by ghosts of past failure.

Concentrate on pushing LeBron James and his 38-year-old legs to the limit rather than playing the victim after every unfriendly whistle from the refs, and you can mark it down: The Nuggets will advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Nothing against the Lakers. We love L.A. too. Those 17 championship banners in the rafters are more stunning than all the beautiful people who sit with their famous feet on the arena floor in the City of Angels, where a storied franchise hasn’t lost since March.

But who’s afraid of LeBron and the Lakers? The best player and best team in this playoff series can be found in Denver.

“Our goal was not to get to the Western Conference finals,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Our goal is to win a championship.”

OK, let’s get the usual basketball grievances from a fly-over city out of the way.

The Lakers will benefit from favorable foul calls. Guaranteed. That’s just how the NBA works, my friends.

With Bron seeking the fifth championship ring of his amazing career, America will be rooting for him to get one for the thumb.

Almost inconceivably, a team wearing royal purple and gold that underachieved nearly all season long is now playing the gritty little underdog card, with forward Anthony Davis claiming the Lakers are on a mission to shock the world.

Isn’t that rich?

I’m already hearing Nuggets Nation whine about how the NBA will press an invisible thumb on the scale in favor of the Lakers. C’mon, people. Jokic, Jamal Murray and this team belong here, on the big stage. Maybe we should act like a basketball city ready for its close-up, unless your goal is to reinforce the notion we’re a bunch of yahoos from a dusty old cowtown.

All bellyaching aside, the unbiased data suggests the way Los Angeles and Denver approach the game is likely to result in a distinct free-throw advantage for the Lakers in this series.

To say L.A. plays downhill might be putting it mildly. James and Davis can be boulders rolling down a mountain. The Lakers dispatched defending league champ Golden State in six playoff games, in no small measure because they outscored the Warriors at the foul line 126-60.

During the regular season, the Lakers’ average of 26.6 free throw attempts per game was No. 1 in the league, while Denver ranked 24th at 22.4. Offensive muscle and stout defense gave the Lakers an advantage of nearly six foul shots per game during the course of the year.

Try as the Nuggets might to feed the ball to Jokic in the paint and have Aaron Gordon keep James in check, it would be an invitation to frustration for Malone to think a free-throw disparity that benefits Los Angeles will suddenly disappear.

So a key for the Nuggets, and a test of their playoff maturity, will be how they react when the whistles send James on a parade to the charity stripe.

“There’s going to be adversity,” Denver guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “But we never doubt ourselves.”

Nikola is our beloved Joker, and his slow-motion ballet is rapidly winning aficionados, from notorious ESPN knucklehead Kendrick Perkins to Suns superstar Kevin Durant, who graciously hails Jokic as “one of the all-time great centers to ever touch a basketball.”

Before Denver eliminated Phoenix, during a chat with Dan Patrick last week, one of America’s more respected sports voices told me he still dismissed the Nuggets as Christopher Cross or Air Supply. “Light rock,” Patrick said. “I need them to be heavy metal.”

Well, here is a big chance for validation by a basketball franchise that’s never really won anything. The Nuggets have advanced only as far as the NBA conference finals four times, and the last three times Denver was there it got spanked by the Lakers during Dan Issel’s final season in 1985, Carmelo Anthony’s prime in 2009 and at the hermetically sealed bubble in 2020.

Nothing would shout legitimacy like refusing to bow out against the King.

When I asked Jokic to assess the challenge that begins Tuesday night in Ball Arena, he replied: “You cannot relax. You need to play your game and trust your game. Don’t let anything disturb you.”

The last time these teams met in the playoffs, when the Lakers dispatched Denver in five games on their way to a championship, Caldwell-Pope was a defensive stopper for the Lakers. He now cashes checks from Denver.

“It will be fun to go through them to get this championship,” Caldwell-Pope said.

Fun? Might depend on your definition of a good time. The beautiful agony of a long, tense playoff series awaits.

Know what intrigues me? Although they come wrapped in different packages, Jokic and James can dominate in a very similar way, employing magical court vision that muggles like us can’t comprehend, backed by a relentlessly competitive stamina that allows them to dictate the tenor and tempo of a game.

This is a showdown between a Joker the hoops world still underestimates versus a King who stubbornly refuses to grow old. In seven previous playoff meetings against the Lakers, your Nuggets are 0-7.

Here’s the chance to bury ghosts of past failure alongside the idea that championship basketball can’t happen here.

Nuggets in six.

Want more sports news? Sign up for the Sports Omelette to get all our analysis on Denver’s teams.

Source: Read Full Article