How does the old saying go? The third time’s a harm?
The Nuggets have resumed the position, trapped once again in that gloomy, win-win-win-or-else situation, where they must find the right formula to scramble back into a best-of-seven series in which they trail 3-1. It worked against the Jazz in the first round. It worked against the LA Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals..
History and a very big Lakers team indicate it won’t work again.
Pardon the expression, but the Nuggets literally face a tall order against the Lakers in these Western Conference finals, and a nearly impossible one, if only because basketball logic says a team can only have so many lives in the playoffs. And this is now 18 games and counting for the Nuggets, who have labored the longest of any team on campus.
Oh, and LeBron James is one win away from reaching The Finals for the 10th time, which brings us to the list the reasons why the Nuggets, barring an unforeseen event, have most likely reached the end of the road:
1. The Lakers are large
Well, duh. They’re bringing lots of height, and you thought Denver had altitude. No, actually, the Nuggets measure up short as projected against 6-foot-8 LeBron and 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis and 6-foot-11 Dwight Howard, all of whom have left fingerprints on this series and in the painted area.
This size manifested itself in Game 4 when the Lakers came back again. And again. And again. All those second-chance points (25, actually) off 12 offensive rebounds (Denver had only six) simply wore down Denver and was clearly the difference in yet another close game.
“We did a poor job in that area,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone.
There’s little reason to believe the Nuggets will grow taller overnight. Their only hope is to develop a better hunger for boxing out and more aggressiveness at the rim like they did in Game 3. But Lakers coach Frank Vogel’s decision to start Howard was a game-changer. He’s a downright pest on the block on both ends.
2. Nikola Jokic is overloaded
Now, don’t get it twisted; Jokic is still playing at a lofty level. But in multiple games now he’s had to dance around foul trouble, and the reason for that is simple enough.
Unlike the Clippers’ series — and for most of the Utah series as well — Jokic didn’t have to guard anyone. Neither of those teams offered up an offensive-minded big man who could force Jokic to spend energy and fouls on him. That’s not the case against the Lakers.
Jokic must actually play defense. He has to guard Davis, and at times LeBron when there’s a switch, and even Howard, who’s being very physical and at times succeeding in goading Jokic into cheap fouls.
What this means is Jokic is burning the candle at both ends, and you wonder how much of this is sapping his offense or willingness to mix it up for rebounds and risk getting whistled for fouls. There are times when he doesn’t even bother positing up, electing to settle for jumpers. Not a good sign for Denver.
3. Jamal Murray is gas guzzling
Murray dismissed any notion that he’s running out of steam, saying: “I’m 23 years old, I’m healthy, got a lot of gas left in the tank.”
If you saw those body-contorting shots he made Thursday, you’d have to agree. Once again, Murray is raising hell for the man assigned to him, although LeBron managed to swat a few of his shots in the fourth quarter when Murray — foolishly? — tried to challenge a bigger player a few times too often.
Still, Murray is averaging roughly 42 minutes a night over the last three games, and there’s only one day’s rest between games. At some point, doesn’t this catch up to a player, especially after a long playoff run?
“I’m running the poor kid into the ground,” Malone said. “But when I take him out, things go sideways for us. He’s a tough kid and we’ll continue to ride him.”
4. Denver isn’t getting consistent help for the Big Two
Paul Millsap seems to grow a year older every game. Too often he’s turning the ball over, passing up shots, getting his shot blocked, or simply not making much of an impact. He had five points and five fouls Thursday and Malone had to keep him on the bench, playing him just 17 minutes.
Mason Plumlee is Mason Plumlee. When Jokic takes a breather, the Nuggets suffer from Plumlee’s inability to do anything offensively unless he’s right at the rim. And his decisions on defense haven’t improved greatly since the Invisible Screen in Game 2.
Gary Harris is vapor; he scored three points and missed 4-of-5 shots, just a total non-factor not only in Game 4 but also throughout this series.
Other than Jerami Grant and Monte Morris and an occasional burst from Michael Porter Jr. — whose lax defense often costs the Nuggets — Denver can’t find much support.
“If you can’t help on the defensive end, you shouldn’t be on the floor,” Malone said.
5. Rondo is quietly hurting the Nuggets
Rajon Rondo is giving the Lakers an extra playmaker and relieving LeBron of constantly being charged with that duty. This is what the Lakers wanted to see from their veteran guard, and he’s delivering.
How many times has Rondo tossed a lob pass or bounce pass that led to buckets — he had seven assists Thursday — or simply made the right decision at the right time?
All of this adds up to sobering mathematics for Denver’s odds of rallying in these playoffs for a third straight time. That’s never been done in a single playoff season by a team, and there’s little reason for that reality to suddenly change now.
Murray mentioned how the Nuggets, with few exceptions, have been involved in close games throughout the playoffs, and added: “We just got to give ourselves a chance.”
Well, they better hope those chances aren’t finally running out.
“We have a tough and resilient group,” Malone said.
No question. But this time, do they have the better group in this series?
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