Every team that grows organically over a few years and suddenly finds itself on the doorstep of the championship round must awaken the morning before and stare at the mirror and ask itself this question: Are you just happy to be here? Do you feel that you truly belong?
That might be a strange way for the plucky Nuggets to approach their first Western Conference finals appearance in 11 years; after all, Denver did just eliminate the No. 2 seed Clippers and showed much basketball courage and swagger by rallying from a pair of 3-1 deficits and winning a pair of Game 7s in these playoffs. They are nobody’s surprise team; up until the All-Star break, they had the second-best record in the West. Still, how much do they have left in the tank after this thrilling yet exhausting ride in Orlando? Isn’t the next step tricky? And that is LeBron James and Anthony Davis blocking the path, isn’t it?
LeBron, AD and the Lakers were the boss in the West all season and have not had to labor nearly as much as the Nuggets in this restart. Also, for what it’s worth, the Lakers do bring 16 championships while the Nuggets have zero NBA titles. Basically, this is old hat for LeBron and the Lakers franchise; for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray and the Nuggets, this is a new and forbidding world they’re about to enter. Here in what qualifies as a solid and gradual ascent among the elite teams in the NBA, Denver simply hasn’t paid its championship dues yet, which is usually a requirement before any title hopeful can cash in.
So maybe it’s best they keep embracing the let’s-have-fun approach and stay loose. They know all the urgency is on LeBron and the favored Lakers. They know they’re playing with house money at this point. Why change mindsets now, even if they could?
Besides, there’s a reason the Lakers aren’t expected to stumble. The cohesion between their two superstars is airtight. They’ve lost only twice in eight games in the postseason and closed out two series in emphatic style. This conference championship, much like the just-concluded Nuggets-Clippers series, will be more of a referendum on the Lakers than anything. It’s theirs to lose.