All throughout the NBA playoffs, the Denver Nuggets have made a made of a habit of turning the sensible into hyperbole—of converting the inevitable into premature. It was fair to write them off when they trailed the Utah Jazz 3-1 in the first round, and it was again reasonable to count them out when they fell into another 3-1 series hole during the second round, this time against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Denver, as we all know, came back and advanced on both occasions, rewriting history, twice, as if it were a rough draft rather than a standard of what to expect.
This is all to say: Read deeply into the Los Angeles Lakers' 126-114 victory over the Nuggets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at your own risk. Denver has burned opening-game impulses before and gone on to face and erase far more precarious deficits. It could happen again, if only because the Nuggets' come-from-behind exploits have earned them a certain benefit of the doubt.
And yet, this restraint works both ways. LeBron James and company's performance in Game 1 cannot be downplayed solely because Denver will be better. The Lakers have already shown they're not the Clippers. They didn't take their foot off the gas once they built a big lead Friday night; they went full throttle, seemingly aiming to run right over the Nuggets.
Los Angeles is a team, by all appearances, totally, unequivocally aware of the obvious: that this may be its best chance to win a title during the LeBron-Anthony Davis era.
This sentiment isn't presented lightly. Nor is it just about Game 1. The Lakers, in fact, have pieced together better wire-to-wire outings—which is, no doubt, terrifying to note after they shot 42.3 percent from three (11-of-26); got 37 points, 10 rebounds and four assists from Davis; received major contributions from Howard (13 points, two steals, two blocks) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (18 points); and witnessed another Playoff Rondo masterpiece (nine assists, two steals).
Still, LeBron treated this like his usual feeling-out exhibition, facilitating (12 assists) way more than he looked to score (15 points on 11 shots). More than that, the Lakers have played better games because they've faced better teams, including a superior version of Denver.
The Nuggets didn't make life easy on themselves. Not everything is fixable, but many of their Game 1 pitfalls will be, while others will simply progress to the mean.
Jerami Grant, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Michael Porter Jr. will combine to shoot better than 10-of-32 from the floor (31.2 percent). Denver as a team will take and make more threes (9-of-26) and hit more of their wide-open looks. It won't cough up seven turnovers in every second quarter.
The Lakers won't always shoot an entire game's worth of free throws in that same frame.
More concerning is the Nuggets defense. They let Los Angeles get out in transition much too often, even following made baskets, and they know it:
Getting back on the break with more aplomb is doable. But the Lakers' athleticism isn't going away.
The Nuggets couldn't even find a happy medium when L.A. went with two bigs. They were outscored by nine total points in the time Davis spent playing beside Howard (nine minutes) and JaVale McGee (six minutes) with Nikola Jokic on the floor.
Denver will have some interesting lineup or stylistic decisions to make in the coming games. It needs to control the pace of play more. The Lakers will win this series if it's a start-to-finish sprint.
Cranjis McBasketball @Tim_NBA
Denver gave up 154 points per 100 possessions with Jokic and Murray on the court together in game 1. They gave up offensive rebounds to the Lakers on 50% of LA's misses. Denver also had their slowest pace as a team w/those 2 on court together among their 47 2-man groupings.
That's still a monstrous ask. Giving up fewer offensive rebounds and darting back in transition is a start, but the Lakers have the players to overwhelm with speed. The Nuggets have to hope they at least do a more effective job capitalizing on the minutes in which they dictate the rate of play. Their most played lineup in Game 1—Grant, Harris, Jokic, Millsap and Jamal Murray—operated at a sloth's pace but was ripped apart on defense, finishing as a minus-eight in under 15 minutes.
Nothing Denver does, though, will change the stakes for Los Angeles. This isn't an insult. It's just a fact. No matter what punches the Nuggets may or may not force the Lakers to endure as the series wears on, this is their shot—their best chance of getting a ring with AD and LeBron and of netting James his fourth title overall.
None of which is exclusively about the Nuggets. They're a threat. But entering the playoffs, they weren't the threat. That honor belonged to the since dispatched, woefully underachieving Clippers. Or it belonged to the imperfect-yet-juggernaut Milwaukee Bucks, potential, if expected, NBA Finals foes who crumbled under the weight of their offensive limitations (and the Miami Heat's defense) long before Giannis Antetokounmpo's ankle injury.
Avoiding both the Bucks and the Clippers is a boon for the Lakers' championship stock. It's also not the entire point. The Nuggets made it here at the expense of the Clippers. The Bucks aren't waging battle in the Eastern Conference Finals; the Heat and Boston Celtics are. The Lakers' two biggest rivals proved to be something less. To what end their absence from Los Angeles' championship path actually matters is debatable when, by letter of the law, they were not actually the better teams.
No, this opportunity has more to do with what awaits LeBron and the Lakers on the other side of this season: a Western Conference landscape that profiles to grow only more damning by the season.
Next year will see the return of these Nuggets and the Clippers. The Houston Rockets could be less of a pushover. The Jazz get more interesting in the postseason with a healthy Bojan Bogdanovic.
And most importantly, next season will feature the return of the Golden State Warriors, a dynasty fallen that still has Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson and could parlay draft equity and the Andre Iguodala trade exception into another high-impact player. Or players. Plural.
Dismiss them if you please, or feel free to point out that their championship window, like those of the Clippers and Rockets, could be fast closing. That's all fine. It doesn't make the Lakers' outlook relative to their conference any easier.
These Nuggets are here to stay long term, and the West has a bunch of prospective "next squads up." The New Orleans Pelicans are coming. The Phoenix Suns might be following them. Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are already here.
This says nothing of Finals obstacles in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks are built to last through at least next season. The Heat are built to party for the life of Jimmy Butler's contract—and perhaps longer than that depending on their ability to land another star to pair with Bam Adebayo long term. The Celtics have top-three dibs on the East for, like, the next decade. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers might factor in immediately. The Toronto Raptors will be back, even if it takes them a gap year.
Forgive the there's-no-time-like-the-present vibes. They are a cliche. They also ring true for the Lakers. They're not on the verge of imploding next season, but they're far from permanent LeBron is 35. They are in the conference finals. Their thought-to-be toughest competition is gone.
They have this moment.
They cannot guarantee they get another exactly like it.