The fact that Lakers center Dwight Howard has been trying to get in the heads of Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets isn’t any secret. Howard has joked publicly about waiting for Jokic outside his hotel room — even going so far as to ask Jamal Murray for his teammate’s room number — has jumped inside Nuggets huddles during games and has just overall made himself a nuisance for Los Angeles’ Western Conference Finals opponent.
But it turns out that some of the stuff we haven’t seen on TV might be even more juicy than what we have. According to multiple reports from the bubble, Howard and his Lakers teammates have been talking an almost unbelievable amount of
sh—... stuff to the Nuggets.
The most recent instance of this came after Anthony Davis’ insanely clutch 3-pointer gave the Lakers a buzzer-beating win in Game 2 to take a 2-0 lead in the series. As if that wasn’t enough of a blow to Denver, Howard decided to rub things in a bit, as captured by Sam Amick of The Athletic:
As the Lakers mobbed Davis on the court after his shot, big man Dwight Howard broke off from the group and decided to taunt the Nuggets as they exited the basketball stage. If you somehow haven’t noticed, Howard is leaning hard into this tough-guy approach.
“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”
A small group of Nuggets staffers, including one of Jokic’s biggest supporters in assistant strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, did not take kindly to the mocking that had taken place all game long and returned to the court to shout back. The two sides exchanged words, and eventually retreated to their corners that came with conflicting emotions.
Somehow, though, that wasn’t even the meanest trash talk Howard and the Lakers tossed in the Nuggets’ direction that game. That honor went to what they yelled at Jokic earlier from the bench, a scene Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports depicted in his postgame column:
Late in the first quarter of the Lakers’ Western Conference finals Game 2 victory on Sunday, Davis walked to his post spot near the Lakers’ bench while Denver Nuggets rookie Michael Porter Jr. was at the line. Nikola Jokic followed Davis and the two bigs were all alone.
Once the Lakers’ bench saw it was Jokic tasked with guarding Davis, it brought the noise with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard screaming, “Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of champagne!”
But lest you think this is just something the Lakers’ big men are doing, they aren’t alone in their efforts to disparage Denver. This is a fairly team-wide put down effort, and it started during Game 1.
Howard’s tireless physicality with the Nuggets may have drawn most of the attention that night, but from LeBron reportedly yelling “get that shit out of here” after one of Howard’s blocks to Rajon Rondo and Markieff Morris throwing their own shade, it wasn’t just the veteran center tossing put-downs at Denver (via Amick’s story from the first game):
Not long after Howard tried to bust into the Nuggets’ huddle, Lakers forward Markieff Morris (whose twin brother and Clippers forward, Marcus, was dispatched by Denver in the second round) stood at midcourt while staring at the Nuggets bench and stomped his foot on the hardwood and twisted it as if he were killing a bug. The message was clear: Prepare for your playoff extermination. Malone, in turn, shared a few choice words in Morris’ direction.
When Malone used his one and only coach’s challenge on a play that seemed unlikely to be overturned on the next possession — the Murray foul on the left side when James barreled through him — Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo walked toward the Lakers bench and shouted, “Thank you! Appreciate you, Mike!”
At least a Morris twin going after the Nuggets hasn’t ended poorly bef... wait a second. Oh.
Now, some might accuse the Lakers of talking a bit too much here, or of tempting karma, fate or whatever universal forces of trash talk retribution one fears. That’s possible, but there is also another, more tangible takeaway here: That the Lakers are really, really trying to denigrate and demoralize Denver.
Why? It actually may fit in with a playoffs-long trend, and honestly one that has kind of existed all season. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has talked multiple times about wanting the Lakers to be the most physical team in the league, and all year they’ve used that quality to wear down their opponents, both in individual games and — during the postseason — over the course of a series.
The physical exhaustion and mental toll it takes to play against the Lakers had the Trail Blazers ready to fly back to Portland by halftime of Game 4 in the first round. The Lakers had pretty much broken the Rockets’ collective spirit by the end of Game 3 in the second.
The Nuggets, though — as we’ve seen throughout the playoffs — aren’t as mentally weak or overmatched as either of those teams. This is a team that has already come back from two straight 3-1 deficits. Long odds don’t scare them, and they won’t roll over just because they go down big. The Lakers’ trash talk, when viewed through that lens, appears to be an effort to take the spirit and fight out of Denver, to not just beat them, but to bully and destroy them mentally, to make them question themselves or get in their own heads.
Whether this approach will work — or if it will just blow up in the Lakers’ face and motivate the Nuggets more — remains to be seen. But this team can smell blood, and it’s trying to make sure that the Nuggets know they’re bleeding.