On Tuesday night the Nuggets did something they haven’t done in three years: play great basketball in the playoffs. Although the team won several games since its historic run to the Western Conference Finals in 2009, there was always something missing in those wins. They were hollow — strictly for the sake of putting a “W” on paper and not one in the hearts of their fans. Tuesday was different. On Tuesday, the Nuggets weren’t playing for a “W”; they were playing for the city of Denver, its fans and the pride of both.
It’s difficult to describe how Tuesday’s win felt. Sure you can use all the standard adjectives you want: excitement, satisfaction, relief, even bliss. But words don’t do something like this justice. Perhaps because there might not be a word to describe the encompassing emotions Nuggets fans had built up over the last few years that were expelled in Game 5. It’s as if it was something only Nuggets fans could know. To the rest of the world it was just the cute, loveable — but never reverent — Nuggets stepping up to the plate against a powerful Lakers franchise draped in championship banners. But to Nuggets fans, it was a bounding leap in a positive direction for a franchise smothered with insecurity and dysfunctional collapses this time of year.
Ever since losing in embarrassing fashion in the first round of the playoffs became a hallmark of the Nuggets under George Karl, I’ve always argued one thing: Just show us that you care. Show us that, even if thoroughly outmatched, you still care more about winning than the fans do. Show us that, no matter how different the opponent may be, you’re still going to give the same amount of heart year in and year out.
Unfortunately, the Nuggets have done the exact opposite for seven of their last eight straight playoff appearances. Outside of 2009 the Nuggets haven’t even won more than one playoff game in each of its series under George Karl. (Interestingly enough, the one time they did was with Adrian Dantley at the helm in 2010 when they lost in six games to the Utah Jazz.) Which is why Tuesday’s win was so meaningful. It’s really the first time the Nuggets have ever been down and played like they understood what was at stake. Reality finally permeated the locker room before the game (thanks to an emotional Andre Miller speech?) and instead of caving in and waiving the white flag, the Nuggets valiantly fought back against impending death and lived to fight again — even if it was for just one more day.
Here are some additional notes from Game 5:
— I know I’ve run it into the ground, but I still have to question why Mozgov is starting at this point in time. It’s highly questionable that after earning the starting gig over Mozgov midway through the season, Koufos suddenly sees his job revoked come playoff time. Sure, Mozgov does play better one-on-one defense against Bynum, for whatever reason, but people need to realize that his complete lack of potency on offense, or in any other area of the game, totally erases whatever “progress” he might have made in the first place. On Tuesday he logged 13 minutes and finished the night with only one block and four personal fouls. Yes, Bynum didn’t score much, but he still hauled down seven rebounds with Mozgov in the game to Mozgov’s zero. That’s seven whole extra possessions the Lakers received as a result and I’m sure Bynum scored in at least a few, therefore eliminating any stops Mozgov accumulated on him to begin with. Somewhat of an informal fallacy, perhaps… but you get my point.
— Faried needs to find some consistency. I know it’s tough when Karl jerks his minutes around like bait on a fly rod but he’s just too valuable of a weapon to disappear like he’s been doing at times. If Faried could play every minute like he did in the first quarter of Game 5 the Nuggets would be an entirely different team. Getting out on the break must be priority No. 1 for Faried, as he’s much faster than any of the Lakers big men.
— Al Harrington has had a tough series but lets remember this: dude’s got a broken nose and torn meniscus. I don’t care what anybody says, he’s earned my respect this season for the way he’s dedicated himself to the team, regardless of circumstance and injury. That said, he shouldn’t be playing anymore. He’s just too banged up. I know it would be entirely against anything George Karl has ever stood for in his existence, but he needs to set his ego aside and realize that Jordan Hamilton would be much more of a threat at this point in time than Big Al. It’s really too bad Karl has such disdain for rookies as getting Hamilton some time this season could have really paid off this series. As it stands three of the Nuggets four backup small forwards are injured. Though Hamilton may be young, he’s still a professional basketball player with a hell of a lot of talent that’s just sitting on the end of the bench.
— The turning point of this series was the third quarter of Game 5. Up to that point the Lakers had never let the Nuggets out of their sight. When the second half started the Nuggets finally broke through this threshold and opened up a sizable lead for the first time all series. This was huge. Even though the Nuggets slowly relinquished their lead, the confidence they obtained by proving to themselves that they can outplay the Lakers to the tune of a 10-plus point lead was invaluable. If they can somehow manage to open up yet another extensive lead on Thursday, it’s hard to imagine them giving it up again.
— For those calling for Arron Afflalo to be traded, saying he’s “not the shooting guard of the future” (like many were doing with Ty Lawson after Game 1), please stop. Just, give it up. You’re not doing yourself any good, at all. You do realize he’s matching up against the second greatest shooting guard in NBA history, right!?! If not, just know this: With Afflalo in the game Kobe is averaging 24 points per 36 minutes on 41 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent shooting from beyond the arc. When Afflalo is out of the game Kobe is averaging 39 points per 36 minutes on 47 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If that doesn’t put things into perspective for you, I don’t know what will.
— JaVale McGee and Andre Miller were flat-out incredible in Game 5. Nuggets fans can’t thank these guys enough. I’ve admittedly been critical of Miller throughout much of the season, and I still believe most of it was justified (see: defense). But frankly, all that doesn’t matter anymore. If you’re gonna come out this time of year and put on performances like that, then I can’t have anything but the utmost amount of gratitude towards you. As for McGee, again, I’m pretty much speechless. Talking with Andrew Kamenetzky of ESPNLA.com’s Land O’Lakers blog this morning, he mentioned McGee was progressing meteorically this entire series, and as a result playing the best basketball of his life. It’s just absolutely amazing that only months ago this kid could get nothing but scrutiny from the national media and now he’s winning playoff games and outperforming Andrew Bynum in the process. Word on the TrueHoop street is that McGee was simply in the wrong situation in Washington and that he’s actually a really dedicated dude who wants to be the best player he can be. If this is true, Masai Ujiri is even more of a genius than we originally thought.
— Lastly, I thought this SI.com piece was a great recap of the series thus far. If you have time to read it, I’d encourage you to do so. There’s a lot of insightful information on some of the more technical aspects of the game there.