The Los Angeles Lakers' 105-103 victory over the Nuggets last night was frustrating for longtime Nuggets observers to witness for several important reasons. The Nugs' ran up sizable leads on a couple of occasions only to steadily give them back -- a typical habit back in the day that this year's outfit seemed to have broken. In addition, the team's rust showed in occasional defensive lapses and inconsistency from the foul line: Seeing Chauncey Billups miss three consecutive free throws was akin to watching the sun rise in the west and set in the east. Finally, they seemed to lose their cool in the final minutes. Kenyon Martin got called for a couple of ultra-stupid fouls -- and while I might have preferred the referees to swallow their whistles at that stage, K-Mart certainly gave them an excuse to ring him up. And then there was Anthony Carter's embarrassing inbound pass to Trevor Ariza, who happens to play for the other team. I agree with Joe Tone that having the vertically challenged Carter take on this role was a strategic error -- but A.C. should have called a time out rather than lazily telegraphing a lob that sealed the Nuggets' doom.
So, given all that, why do I continue to feel optimistic about the Nuggets' chances. Three simple reasons:
1. The Nuggets proved that they can hang with the Lakers in the Staples Center, where they've collapsed so often in recent years that it's a wonder they haven't replaced their bench with a fainting couch. There was never any doubt that the Nugs belonged in the finals, nor the slightest sign of a confidence collapse, in stark contrast to their most recent playoff matchup with the Lake Show.
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2. Carmelo was incredible. Instead of disappearing, as he's frequently done during the playoffs in previous seasons, he thrived in the spotlight.
3. Much of the supporting cast had a subpar outing, yet the team had plenty of chances to win anyhow. Scoring more than 100 points with J.R. Smith contributing only eight points and both Chauncey Billups and Nenê winding up south of twenty should worry the hell out of the Lakers, whose own defense hardly seemed impenetrable.
Going into game one, I felt that a Nuggets' loss wouldn't be catastrophic as long as they kept things close, and they most certainly did that. The same goes for game two. If they win, great. If they don't, they clearly have the swagger necessary to win the next two at home. And the proof of that was obvious last night despite the final score.