Plaschke: Lakers just aren't good enough to beat the Denver Nuggets

The reality hit like a D’Angelo Russell brick.

The truth echoed like a Rocky Mountain roar.

The reality swirled and stuck and froze like the snow outside Ball Arena on a night when the Lakers were forced to face the facts.

They’re simply not as good as the Denver Nuggets.

They’re not as tough. They’re not as deep. They’re not as skilled. They’re not as connected.

If they somehow overcome Saturday’s opening-game 114-103 defeat and unseat the defending NBA champions in this first-round playoff series, it will be the upset of the century.

“I truly believe it’s still going to be a hard-fought series,” claimed Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “Everybody is going to lose their mind over one game … give them their credit. They held serve at home. Tough home team.”

Nope. Not buying it. Mind is completely intact. Series might be eventually hard fought, but it certainly appears to be short-lived.

If the Lakers win one game, it will be an accomplishment. If they win two games, it would feel like a miracle. If they win three games, throw a parade.

There is simply no scenario in which it appears possible for the Lakers to win four of the next six games against a team that has beaten them nine straight times.

Those nine wins felt like 90 after a Nuggets victory in front of a thunderously loud crowd that began the game worrying and ended it jeering.

The building had fallen silent midway through the second quarter when the Lakers actually led by a dozen and then dramatically held on to a three-point halftime lead after LeBron James sank a deep trey just before the buzzer.

There was real hope. Then it got real ugly.

An hour later, the Lakers had been punched in the mouth, jabbed in the ribs, shoved from here to Pikes Peak, outscored by 14 in the third quarter, smothered in the fourth, and ended the game with a scene that epitomized the night.

There was an exhausted James, tripping down the lane, losing the ball, hitting the hardwood, lying prone on the court for several pained minutes while 19,000 screamed above him in delight.

You know how the Lakers took pride in playing the Nuggets close in each of the four games in last season’s Western Conference finals sweep? This time they should be so lucky.

The Nuggets are once again of championship caliber. The Lakers once again are not.

“[Expletive], it’s tough,” said Ham, the frustration weighing heavy in his voice.

Tough, when you allow your opponent to claim an amazing 15 offensive rebounds that they convert into 18 second-chance points, the Nuggets’ comeback fueled by an aggressiveness that the Lakers simply could not match.

As the Lakers were attempting to close the gap late in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets scored twice off offensive rebounds, once off two offensive rebounds, as Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray seemed glued to the ball while the Lakers seemed glued to the ground.

“We can’t allow them to get multiple possessions,” said Ham. “We have to be more disciplined, more perfect.”

Tough, when your two best players shine yet the rest of your team disappears. James and Davis combined for 59 points, 20 rebounds and 13 assists while everyone else did squat. Only one Laker reserve — Taurean Prince — even scored. The other Laker role players simply stunk.

D’Angelo Russell, futilely attempting to compensate for last spring’s playoff debacle against Denver, doubled down on his struggles, shooting six for 20 from the field, including one for nine from three-point range.

“Great looks. I mean, I can’t be mad,” he said. “I don’t recall the last time I got 20 shots. So for me to get 20 good looks — not 20 ‘good,’ probably five or six of them were questionable — I know what I’m capable of. So, honestly, I’m excited. I’m excited about that.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s guessing Lakers fans are seeing it different.

Then there was Austin Reaves, attempting to replicate last spring’s playoff heroics, making just five baskets while being beaten consistently on defense. He equaled a team low by finishing the game with a minus-12, not the sort of numbers that can fuel a Lakers success.

“They just played better than us,” he said. “You tip your hat to that, and we’ll try to do better.”

But how much better can they do? Reaves noted the difficulty in playing a team that is the exact opposite of the Lakers — disciplined, focused, together.

“It’s tough to do against a very well-coached, disciplined team, and they know exactly what they’re going to get to every possession even when you’re on runs,” Reaves said. “Especially that third quarter, when we’re coming out of halftime, we just gotta have that intensity at all times.”

Note that Reaves said the Nuggets were “well-coached” and that he questioned the consistency of his team’s intensity. Both observations lead directly to the seat of Ham, and one can guess that if the Lakers get swept again, that seat might become a bit hot.

Of course, it’s hard to blame Ham for players simply not showing up. Among the other Lakers stragglers, Rui Hachimura made two baskets while Gabe Vincent and Spencer Dinwiddie didn’t even attempt a shot. In all, it wasn’t enough to support the efforts of James and Davis, both of whom played at least 40 minutes but neither of whom could carry the team by themselves.

James in particular seemed to tire, taking only six shots and scoring only eight points in the second half after scoring a dozen points in the first quarter.

Afterward I asked James if there was a danger in the Lakers remembering last year’s sweep and thinking, ‘’here we go again.”

Unlike some of his teammates on the court, he pushed back.

“ I don’t ever get into a ‘here we go again’ mindset,” he said. “It’s one game. They protected their home court. We have another opportunity on Monday to come back and be better. We know how challenging it’s going to be. We know how difficult this opponent is and how great they are. So that’s all a part of the game. I don’t get into the doubt mindset. That’s not me. I’m the wrong guy to ask.”

OK, so somebody needs to say it.

Here we go again.

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