Tonight's game has all of the makings of the pivotal game in this series. If the Nuggets win, their chances are alive and well – two out of three isn't easy, but it's immensely easier than winning three before your opponent can win just one. Especially when said opponent is the Los Angeles Lakers.
Should the Lakers win, the remainder of the series will be but a formality. Game 5 would become a closeout opportunity, and even if they lost it, the odds of the series going more than six games would be ridiculously small.
But it's more than that. With the Nuggets, you know it has to be.
Click on through to read exactly why this game is an absolute, unequivocal "must win" game for the Nuggets...
Think back to the first round of the playoffs, a year ago. The Lakers played the Nuggets, and from Game 1, Kobe Bryant got in Denver's head. Both individually and collectively, the Nuggets lost composure and simply fell apart at the seams. They were incapable of handling diversity, unable to play through stretches when things weren't going their way. They lost their heads, collected senseless technicals, got themselves ejected, and generally handed the series to the Lakers on a silver platter. Has a series ever been easier?
A year later, this is not that Nuggets team. But it has a lot of holdouts from that team. In fact, most of the same players are still there. Chauncey Billups has replaced Allen Iverson in a trade of which the value can never be overstated, and George Karl returned to coaching defense. With Billups' on board and providing locker room leadership, things have really turned around for the Nuggets.
Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony has grown a lot. He spent a lot of time with Kobe during the Olympics, and Kobe's work ethic and dedication to the defensive end of the court undeniably left an imprint on him. At the same time, he's seemed to simply grow up. Along with playing defense, he cut off the corn rows, has reduced his off-court incidents, and is taking responsibility and showing leadership.
The problem: There are still a lot of holdouts from last year's team. And these guys are as volatile as they are talented, as emotional as they are intense, and potentially as dangerous to themselves as they are to their opponents. They are looking for redeption, both as individuals and as a group, and they may yet find it – but this is their first run in with serious adversity since their "makeover." They will need to play through rough stretches. They will have to maintain positive, confident, and constructive attitudes. They will need to keep their composure and make smart plays with the game on the line. Simply put, they have never faced this and succeeded. To do so now is their ultimate challenge.
Chauncey Billups is not the Nuggets concern, and to a certain degree of surprise, neither is Carmelo Anthony. These players can be counted on to deliver in high pressure situations, and to provide leadership in the locker room and on the floor. The concern for the Nuggets is the likes of J.R. Smith, Chris "Birdman" Andersen, Kenyon Martin – players who, for all their passion, are just as likely to hand out free points by picking up unnecessary technicals when things get heated as they are to coolly hit baskets and play lockdown defense.
On these players, the Nuggets' season hinges, and for them, this game is crucial. They are currently teetering on the brink. With a win over the Lakers, they will gain confidence, learn from experience, and remain on this side of basketball sanity. But should they lose, the discouragement and frustration may be too much for players like these to contain, making them a detriment to their team in Game 5 and beyond.
The Lakers must look to capitalize on this.
Let's be clear about this: This is in now way a must-win game for the Lakers. Should they lose, they will still be the favorites to win two out of the three remaining games, especially with two of the three cames taking place back in Staples Center. The most important thing for them was to get one of these games, and they have done that. Lose, and they are still in command of the series. But win... win, and they will have forced the Nuggets into an untenable position.
Down 1-3, I expect the weaker minds of this Nuggets squad to begin to cave. The Lakers will then be able to lean on them, pushing their buttons, egging them on, and simply daring them to self-destruct. Billups' and Melo's leadership have been impressive so far, but I'm not convinced it will be enough if their "supporting cast" reaches that point of ultimate frustration.
On the one hand, the Lakers have a good chance of pulling off a second win in a row tonight. After a rocky postseason, they should feel they have something to prove. For the first time since the playoffs started, they have the opportunity to get the upper hand over Cleveland. They are tired, and have been playing every other day since May 4 (the only exception: a two-day rest between games six and seven of the last round). And of course, the chance to have such a strong upper hand with a 3-1 series lead, instead of an even tie, should be enough of a motivating factor all by itself. In this game, they should have no excuse for lack of motivation.
Certainly, they have the tools to do it. The Nuggets' big men cannot compete with the length, skill, speed, or rebounding ability of Pau Gasol – when the Lakers are getting him the ball and he is being aggressive. In the 4th quarter of Game 3, the Lakers seemed to be figuring out how to use that advantage, and Gasol seemed to be understanding his need to be aggressive.
We also have a defensive and offensive weapon that Denver simply has no answer for. Defensively, Kobe Bryant is able to match up well with Billups, causing the Nuggets' point guard and most valuable player to struggle. On offense, Kobe is having his way with the Nuggets, regardless of whom they throw at him. As DexterFishmore pointed out:
Before I leave you with the composite series numbers below, a word about Kobe. He scored 41 points on 30 SPs, with 5 assists, 6 boards, 2 steals, only 1 turnover and some great defense that forced Chauncey Billups into a substandard game. He's now at 63% True Shooting for the series. You don't need me to tell you that this is beyond awesome. Suffice it to say that we're watching one of the best players in the history of the game, at something like the height of his powers. Enjoy it. Seriously - don't let the stress of these games drain away the pleasure of watching him perform at this level. It won't last forever, and we're not likely to see another one like him in our lifetime.
At the same time, as Chris pointed out, these Lakers are who we thought they were. They don't play their best ball unless there is tangible motivation – and not just motivation, but a felt need to win, with realistic pressure. In the playoffs, solid wins are often followed by uninspired losses. This is not a do-or-die, must-win game, and you can bet the Lakers know it. They came here to take one in Denver, and you can also bet that they're aware that they have already accomplished that.
Denver will be playing for their lives. While tonight's contest is not an elimination game for the Nuggets, it is a must-win for them, as a loss would put them in a hole nearly impossible to climb out of. The Lakers? I'm not so sure. They'll need to play with intensity, show that they want this game, and prove that they've learned a thing or two over the first three rounds of this series. They need to establish their low-post game, Gasol needs to be aggressive, they need better play at the point guard position, and they need to play the kind of top notch defense they're capable of when they put their minds to it.
This is a vital moment in this series. A Lakers loss here likely means a long, hard fought series. A win means the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, I'm not sure which Lakers team will show up. In fact, if you want my opinion, the circumstances make me a bit nervous.
Let's hope I'm wrong, and that the Lakers come out with a sense of urgency looking to put Denver in a world of hurt, in a whole they won't be able to dig out of.