The harshest truth behind the Los Angeles Lakers' 0-3 deficit to the Denver Nuggets

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Saturday, April 27, 2024

Not counting the not-so-secret tunnels inside of Arena, there were -- at most -- 100 feet between the cozy interview room in which Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was explaining how long it takes to to build a championship team Thursday night after his team took a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in their first-round playoff series, and the makeshift, cavernous room in which L.A.'s LeBron James and Anthony Davis were trying to reckon with how quickly their championship hopes were fading.

"You need two or three years to learn how to play with each other," Jokic said, before launching into an abridged history of his time and all the teammates he has had in nine seasons with the Nuggets.

"You need to learn your teammates. His steps. If he's going to go left hand. If he's going to go right hand. It's everything."

Down the hall, James had just concluded his news conference by saying he couldn't say how or what any of his teammates were thinking after the fourth consecutive playoff game in which the Lakers had squandered a double-digit lead to the Nuggets and their 11th consecutive loss to Denver overall.

"It's hard for me to just be like, 'This is what I think that guy feels,'" James said. "I can't do that. I'm not a mind reader. I don't know."

There have been plenty of harsh truths revealed during this series, which could be headed for the same kind of "competitive sweep" as last season's Western Conference finals if Denver can close out L.A. in Game 4 Saturday evening, but none more stinging than the culture gap between the two franchises that Jokic's and James' comments made clear.

In one room, a future Hall of Famer was talking about nearly a decade's worth of culture and team building. In the other, a future Hall of Famer was lamenting the disconnect within his own locker room.

In one room, Jokic was naming former teammates such as Gary Harris and Jameer Nelson, who had helped Denver find its championship identity. In the other, James was deliberately not naming any of his current teammates -- outside of Davis -- so as not to further destabilize what is already a sinking ship.

"We have a very resilient group and a very high IQ group, so when we need to make adjustments, we make them very quickly and we execute them very quickly," Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said. "I mean it's kind of a telepathy we got, man. We got a mind meld going on."

If and when the Nuggets close out this series, they'll turn their attention to a likely second-round matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who took a 3-0 series lead Friday night against the Western Conference's other top-heavy, culture-lacking franchise, the Phoenix Suns.

Minnesota's roster was built in much the same fashion as Denver's, brick by brick around two homegrown superstars, by the same executive, Tim Connelly, who built the base of this Nuggets team.

If and when the Lakers lose this series, they'll turn their attention to another summertime overhaul. Coach Darvin Ham's future will be debated. James could leave as a free agent, or simply use that possibility as leverage to pressure the franchise to add a third star of his choosing. Starting point guard D'Angelo Russell could depart as a free agent, as could six other players in the rotation.

Instead of building culture or fortifying a championship core, it'll be another summer of change and churn in Los Angeles. Another offseason of searching for the right mix, rather than letting things settle and grow.

Last offseason, the Lakers mostly brought back the group that had gone on a playoff run to the Western Conference finals. In the second half of this season, they finally got healthy enough to try to recreate that run, going 30-17 since Jan. 3.

But after another humbling first-round exit, with the pressure to win in Los Angeles and a still-great-at-age-39 James, it will be next to impossible for the Lakers to stand pat.

Consider this though: The Lakers have won 17 NBA championships, tied with the Boston Celtics for the most in NBA history. Fourteen of those 17 titles were won by three coaches: Phil Jackson (five), John Kundla (five) and Pat Riley (four).

Consistency matters. So does culture. Both take time to develop, which the Lakers do not seem to have the patience for.

Seemingly countless roster iterations ago, the 2019-20 championship roster included a 25-year-old Alex Caruso, a 26-year-old Kentavious Caldwell Pope, a 32-year-old Danny Green, a 24-year-old Kyle Kuzma and on and on. With Anthony Davis, then just 26.

"Clearly we have to do something better," Lakers forward Rui Hachimura said after practice Friday. "We've been trying. We've been watching a lot of film. We're adjusting different coverages. But as a team, in my opinion, we just don't have enough experience. ... They've been together for like five years."

There are a hundred plays from this series that could serve as a metaphor for the gap between these two teams -- and one from late in Game 3 is as good as any.

With 2:57 remaining in the third quarter of Thursday's win, Jokic grabbed an offensive rebound over James. It came at a point in the game when the Lakers were pressing. Once again they'd built and given back a double-digit lead. Once again Denver had buckled down at halftime, started hitting shots and executed at a championship level in the third quarter. The L.A. crowd had gone silent, sick to its stomach that this script was playing out again.

Austin Reaves tried to create off the dribble and get into the paint, rather than settle for a 3-pointer, where the Lakers had been putrid (1-for-16 at that point). The runner was there. Reaves clanked it off the back rim.

Caldwell-Pope grabbed the rebound and quickly outletted the ball to Jamal Murray, who pushed the ball in transition. James hustled back on defense and was in good position for the rebound when Michael Porter Jr.'s 3-pointer missed. But he didn't box out Jokic, who jumped over the top of him, grabbed the rebound and put it back in to stretch the lead to 77-69.

Davis, who had jogged back on defense, was still standing by the 3-point arc as the ball went in.

"Sometimes it's the guards on bigger guys, but other times it's just simple boxing out or just going to get it," Davis said of the Lakers' rebounding woes and lack of connectedness. "I think everyone is anticipating the other guy going to get it instead of one of us going to get it."

Davis hung his head after Jokic's putback. He was standing by himself, 20 feet from the play, unable to do anything to change the outcome. The four other Lakers, heads down, walked away, in any direction but toward each other.

Jokic was already on to what was next -- stretching out his arms to huddle up and embrace his teammates, together.

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