Where there's life, there's hope -- but the Denver Nuggets don't have much of either right now. After making an energetic stand on Friday night to notch a 99-84 victory over the heavily favored L.A. Lakers at the Pepsi Center, the Nugs failed to build on this success, falling to the Lake Show 92-88 last night, pretty much guaranteeing another first-round playoffs exit -- and calling into question whether this team as currently constituted can ever rise higher.
On Friday, the Nuggets prevailed for two main reasons. First off, Ty Lawson, the de facto leader of the squad, finally performed like one, putting up 25 points and, more importantly, setting the sort of fast pace that brings out the best in his fleet-footed mates. And more surprisingly, JaVale McGee, who since coming to Denver has been more adept at generating unintentional comedy than positive highlights, played out of his mind in a good way, racking up sixteen points and fifteen boards en route to making Andrew Bynum look human.
Had to know McGee wasn't going to match this stat line two games in a row, and he didn't, registering eight points and just four rebounds, none of them offensive. Likewise, Kenneth Faried, who's been one of the few Nuggets to exceed expectations in this series, fell back. His energy was ominipresent, as always, but he managed just six points and seven rebounds while reminding everyone that he's only got about half a season of NBA play under his belt.
Still, the big men weren't the biggest problems. Lawson reverted once again, submitting just eleven points, and Arron Afflalo floundered at the offensive end, as he has for most of the series, scoring a measly six. Danilo Gallinari helped compensate with twenty, while Andre Miller and Al Harrington, broken nose, gimpy knee and all, contributed with fifteen and nine, respectively. But in the playoffs, that kind of point distribution isn't going to cut it against a veteran team like the Lakers, who hung tough throughout a close contest before two second-tier talents, Ramon Sessions and ex-Nug Steve Blake, drained a three apiece late to transform a tie game into an impossible-to-surmount L.A. lead.
What was most frustrating for Denver fans was the fact that Denver had a chance to win -- and a good team would have done so.
Is the lineup's configuration at fault? In many ways, yes. Nearly everyone on the roster qualifies as a good role player, but there's really no leading man -- not with Lawson, in particular, stumbling during big moments. Everyone on the roster, with the possible exception of Faried, has too low a ceiling to take the team to the next level unless multiple people are on fire every night -- and that just doesn't happen very often. Couple that with the sort of defensive lapses that are magnified during the postseason and you've got a collection of ballers good enough to make the playoffs year in and year out, but lacking that special extra to do something once they get there.
A superstar alone isn't the answer. After all, Denver usually crapped out during the first round when Carmelo Anthony was in Denver, too. What's wanted, rather, is the kind of focal point who's able to step up when needed and step back when his teammates are rolling.
As we know, such players are a rare commodity. But without one, the Nuggets aren't going to challenge for a championship, or even get close to one, as will almost certainly be made official when the Nuggets play in Los Angeles again on Tuesday.
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