The Denver Nuggets are rolling, and they have much more than a sporting chance to knock off the Los Angeles Lakers and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since they joined the league in 1976.
Contrary to the popular belief that this series’ outcome will come down to which version of the Lakers decides to show up more regularly–Jekyll or Hyde–I think Denver is playing well enough, and has enough advantages in key matchups, that their fate now lies solely in their own hands. If they play like they did in rounds one and two against the New Orleans Hornets and Dallas Mavericks, they’re going to advance.
I don’t want to hear anything about how if the “real” Lakers show up, they’ll have no trouble dispatching of the Nuggets. Bullshit. The real Lakers are a flawed product and not the invincible force they have at times resembled during the regular season and, on fleeting occasions, these 2009 playoffs. I might be in the minority on this one, but I’m just not overly impressed with this Lakers team. Haven’t been all season.
Of course, they’re talented. Very much so. And they have Kobe, arguably still the best playoff performer in the league and at the very least one of the top two. And they have Phil Jackson on the bench, a big man named Andrew Bynum who has so much room for improved play, a hardcore clutch shooter in Derek Fisher, a reliable machine on the blocks in Pau Gasol, and all the other intangibles that somehow manifest themselves in otherwise subpar players once they pull that purple-and-gold jersey over their shoulders, Kwame Brown notwithstanding.
But I hope these Lakers got the memo about Chauncey Billups: he’s a very dangerous, very deadly, and very motivated man right now. The keys to this franchise may be in Carmelo Anthony’s pocket, but Billups is the one driving the car right now. And it’s Billups who will be tasked with the same responsibility he’s had since his arrival: taming the Nuggets’ inner knucklehead and channeling that energy, that passion, into something that’s productive, not destructive.
He’s succeeded thus far, but this series promises to test his reach and influence on his Nuggets teammates like it never has before.
Chauncey Billups’ Western Conference Finals responsibilities after the break…
Billups has been here. He’s led an underdog to an upset, then taken said underdog once step further to an even bigger upset–and if you recall, that was back in 2004 when his Detroit Pistons pounded the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers 4-1. He was rewarded with NBA Finals MVP distinction. If he can replicate that feat, the question of whether or not he’s a future Hall of Famer just might answer itself.
First things first, of course. Billups should be in Kenyon Martin’s ear about putting this Mark Cuban foolishness behind him. It’s already become far too much of a distraction, and there’s little reason to believe that Cuban won’t continue provoking Martin throughout the Western Conference Finals via his blog, from courtside seats, wherever. Who fucking cares. Martin needs to get over it. The Nuggets don’t need the distraction–they need Martin completely focused on rebounding, defense, and getting in Gasol’s, Odom’s, and Bynum’s heads, something he’s entirely capable of and that all three are susceptible to.
Billups needs to keep JR Smith from getting caught up in the moment, from shooting his mouth off, from committing stupid fouls and turnovers, and from taking ill-advised shots. You know Kobe is well aware of Smith’s temperament and will do his best to goad him into making these games something personal between them. That’s a battle Smith can not and will not win–ever–and Billups needs to be the one who constantly reminds him of this.
Smith is a huge wild card in this series and can be a deadly weapon for the Nuggets; he can also be a nagging detriment to a winning cause, though to his credit he’s put much of his immaturity issues behind him this season. Still, Kobe and the Lakers are going to test him. Billups needs to have his man’s back.
Billups needs to basically do the same thing with Anthony–this series is not about him proving himself on the big stage. Or about him matching Kobe point for point, spectacular play by spectacular play. If Anthony wants a shot to prove he’s matured to the point where he can truly be called one of the best players in this league, he’ll have to stay within himself and play within the tight ship Billups will be trying to run. Yes, the Nuggets are going to need Anthony to score in bunches, but those points will need to come within the flow of the game. Billups can make that happen for him. Billups needs to make that happen for him.
Finally, Billups needs to take care of himself and be Mr. Big Shot at his best. So far in these playoffs, he’s been marvelous, averaging 49% from the field, 54% from behind the arc (54%!), 95% from the free-throw line, 22 points, 7.3 assists, and just 1.7 turnovers per. If he can keep this up, the Nuggets will have themselves in a very advantageous position. Bonus points if he can coax Derek Fisher into early foul trouble, forcing Jackson to roll with Jordan Farmar earlier than he’d like to.
This is a tall order for one player, but Billups has no choice. He’s played with a chip on his shoulder all season long, and if he wants to get back to the Promised Land and further solidify his growing legacy as one of the NBA’s best point guards ever (and he’s in that group, folks… playing in seven straight Conference Finals will do that for you), he’ll have to wear many hats against the Los Angeles Lakers.
My prediction? I’m tempted to take the easy way out and run with the popular sentiment of “Denver puts up a fight, but Lakers win.” But I won’t: Denver Nuggets in 6.
– Memo to Western Conference: Chauncey Billups is a Very Dangerous Man
– Do the Los Angeles Lakers Have Any Heart?
– Why the Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers are the Only Real Title Contenders
– Are the Lakers a Can of Martini or a Can of Tecate?
– Mark Cuban Has No Respect for Mother’s Day
– Do the Lakers Truly Have Championship Balls?
Chauncey Billups and JR Smith Photos Credit: Icon SMI