710 ESPN Podkast, plus a thought on the Nuggets
As a member of the media, I'm theoretically paid to offer opinions containing some degree of validity. Granted, I've gone out of my way to remind the Lakersblog readership that I don't consider myself an NBA "expert," but rather a dude reasonably informed who spends much time around the pro roundball scene. My opinion is hardly the "be all, end all," nor do I recommend everyone set their watch to it, no questions asked. Still, I'm expected to possess a little gravitas, and along those lines, I'd like to thank the Denver Nuggets for helping me create an appearance of credibility. Even if just a sliver, I'll gladly sop it up with a biscuit. Seven hours or so before last night's Lakers-Nuggets tip off, BK and I recorded the latest ESPN podkast, and among other topics discussed (Andrew Bynum's return, worse rapper: Shaq or Kobe), the Lakers' most recent victim popped up.
Admittedly, Denver is a drastically improved squad from last season. The leadership and stability provided by Chauncey Billups is exactly what I expected upon his arrival (although I must admit, I bricked it predicting Allen Iverson would be mutually beneficial for Detroit). Nene's sustained health has combined with Chris Anderson's swats to create two unit's worth of quality frontcourt. Just about every Nugget is playing better defense, and they may be the most talented team attempting to take down the Lakers. But I'm still not buying them as a legit threat. Why? Because as I mentioned to our guest Chris Broussard (ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com), I need to see the Nuggets last a postseason round without flipping out. Broussard agreed with that pessimism, and it sounds like we're not alone.
"You're right. Ultimately, outside of Billups, they're viewed as a group of knuckleheads. That's why nobody really thinks they can win, honestly... Until they really go out there and prove it in the postseason, they're viewed as a team that can't beat a team that's full of solid characters and a strong organization, as well as great basketball players. San Antonio, who you never have to worry about what kind of mindset they're going to bring. Obviously, the Lakers. Cleveland, Boston, in the East. These are teams that you know what you're going to get from them every night in the playoffs. You don't know that about Denver."
Having handed the Lakers one of their worst
losses of the season, the Nuggets had a nationally televised chance to give Doubting Thomas reason to backtrack. To offer evidence of an
increasingly improved ability to roll with the punches. Granted, one
game doesn't "open and shut proof" equal. But as someone keeping a close
eye out for hints and glimpses, last night did more to
reaffirm my suspicions than make me doubt my hunch.
The fourth quarter kicked off with a seven point Laker lead, but mo' favoring the visitors. Up a dozen in the preceding frame with about 90 seconds to go, the purple and gold failed to finish strong. Shannon Brown fouled Billups on a converted and-one layup drive, which was followed by downtown misses from Luke Walton and Sasha Vujacic. Even worse, Vujacic committed a stupid foul thirty feet from the cup, putting J.R. Smith at the line for a swished pair. A Pau Gasol layup represented the lone Laker make on six tries, and while Denver was a ways off from taking control of the game, they did themselves nicely in anticipation of the final twelve minutes.
From there, however, the forward mojo came to a standstill, with Denver running most of the interference against themselves. In a variety of ways (and from a variety of Nuggets), a team reputed for shooting itself in the foot proved those skills mighty consistent.
Smith quickly helped Vujacic find redemption for the earlier brain cramp. The Machine pressured "Young Rich" into a turnover, then swished a trio of freebies after a Smith foul behind the arc. Sasha later drew an obvious charge against Carmelo Anthony (a scoreless whistle magnet down the stretch), who failed to change directions despite the Slovenian squarely set a foot in front of the restricted area. Throw in his swipe of Anthony Carter's careless home run heave, and it was a very positive quarter for Sasha. Linus Kleiza allowed Pau Gasol a senseless "and one" by weakly- and uselessly- shoving him on a layup. Kleiza later missed a pair at the stripe. And in the mother of all breakdowns, the Birdman compounded Carter's foul on Derek Fisher by committing one of the more blatant goaltending infractions I've ever seen. Dunno if Fish's layup would have dropped or not, but Anderson secured Fish a trio of points for his trouble.
All in all, nothing that represents "grace under pressure" as traditionally defined. But don't just take my criticisms as the gospel. As ESPN's Eric Neel reported, the Nuggets also found fault with their crunch time composure.
After a game in which the Lakers defensive pressure forced them to settle time and again in the second half for ill-advised jump shots, it looked like they stood not only in second place in the West, but maybe also pretty squarely in the second division, looking less like championship contenders and more like not ready for prime time players.
"It's frustrating," said Nuggets forward Nene Hilario afterward. "They played their game and we didn't play our game. We started forcing shots and going one-on-one when we needed to be patient."
Karl looked deflated when it was over, and you had to wonder if he wondered if his club could compete at this level. But he instead professed a kind of quiet confidence in the face of the loss. "This is by far the best team I've had in Denver," Karl said. "It's the best defensive team, and it's more of a team than any I've ever had here. I think it's going to be a great challenge to see what we're capable of in these next few weeks."
If the quick-gloss read on Thursday night is that the Lakers are clearly the class of the Western Conference. Beneath the surface there is the story of a Denver club, even in defeat, taking stock of itself.
"It's a great learning experience for us," point guard Chauncey Billups said afterward, looking around the Nuggets locker room at a group of guys who have never played for or won an NBA title.
The team is still trying to understand what it takes to win
games like this, looking to get a handle on what it means to stay true
to themselves and what they're trying to do under the most intense
As Neel notes, ain't much time for this bunch to figure out how to function within the cooker. There is, however, plenty of time to fall back into their old habits. Technical fouls by the bushels. Counterproductive physical play. Fingers pointed instead of bent into rallying fists. Suspensions over insubordinate behavior. I spent a fair amount of time around Denver during the postseason (in 2006 against the Clippers, in 2008 against the Lakers) and I'm typically amazed at how uncomfortably tense a locker room it can be. Melo, Nene, Smith and Kenyon Martin all have very "strong personalities," a P.C. way of saying "combustible at the drop of a pin." Billups is widely acknowledged as one of the league's best steadying forces, but I'll have to see it before believing he can keep these guys in unison for an entire series, much less a deep playoff run highlighted by an upset of the Lakers.
Ultimately, I don't think Denver's talented enough to make it happen under the most ideal circumstances. But even if the talent scales did tip in their favor, I'm skeptical whether they'd allow themselves to make the most of that advantage. Were I Anthony, I'd concern myself less over whether or not I was receiving the proper "respect." Instead, just settle the issue by earning it.