Game Four of the Western Conference Finals was as close to a must-win for the Denver Nuggets as it could get.
Because elimination from the series was not on the line, it was not a must-win, but the team had to win to keep the series going. Heading back to Los Angeles down three games to one was not a position the Nuggets could afford to find themselves in.
They knew they needed to win, they knew they needed to battle, and they did just that.
On a night when Carmelo Anthony was stricken with a "stomach virus," it was time for others to step up. To win, Denver was going to have to rely heavily on other guys to pick up the slack.
It started early on. The Nuggets came out with an energy and effort that Los Angeles could not match. The Nuggets pounded the offensive glass, getting second chance after second chance behind Kenyon Martin and Nene.
Those two had terrific games, their best of the series (if not of the playoffs). Both finished the game with double-doubles in points and rebounds. We here in Denver have gone the entire series wondering when the Denver bench was going to come alive.
We Nuggets fans saw the bench at its best during both the Dallas and the New Orleans series and up until Game Four, key members of the Nuggets' bench like Anthony Carter and J.R. Smith have been unable to produce against the Lakers.
The good vibes off the bench started with Chris "Birdman" Andersen flying around (no pun intended) and feeding off the energy of the crowd and his team. From grabbing rebounds to blocking shots, Birdman did it all for Denver, just like he typically does. His energy transferred to Smith, who had his best game of the series and possibly of the playoffs. Smith's 24 points were monumental, but even more important was his passing and a couple of key defensive plays.
Once Denver got rolling, it was hard for Los Angeles to keep up. They were beaten, bullied and physically dominated in every aspect of the game. Right now, The Lakers are not a championship-caliber team. Honestly, they haven't been the entire playoffs. They have one guy who has the heart of a champion, Kobe Bryant, and the rest are simply along for the ride.
Kobe is the only Laker who is playing with any heart or as if he wants to live up to the hype that follows that team. Pau Gasol shows up here and there but has been inconsistent. Andrew Bynum is playing like a little boy in a man's league. Luke Walton cannot keep Carmelo in front of him, Sasha Vujacic is proud owner of a 15 percent shooting percentage, and Lamar Odom has been a ghost.
If the rest of the team does not step up soon, this series is going to Denver, and the Lakers are going home for the summer.
But is it a surprise? Honestly, to everyone not in La-La Land, the answer is a resounding "No."
The Lakers have no heart, they have no passion and they play as if they should be handed "their" title.
Want an example? Take incidents in the past two games. No other team would allow their leader to take a shove to the back or a trip to the floor and do nothing about it. The Lakers have allowed both to happen to Kobe and have done nothing to stop that type of behavior.
Do it to Chauncey, Carmelo, LeBron, Dwight Howard or any other superstar and see what happens. One of their teammates will step up and put an end to it. The Lakers don't, instead allowing it to happen again and again.
The Los Angeles Lakers have a long way to go before they are crowned NBA Champions, and frankly, unless they start playing with more intensity and realizing that Kobe cannot do it himself, they might not get their chance this year.
Denver is entering previously uncharted territory for this team, and it is so great to see basketball this late into the season.