LOS ANGELES – To win a championship in the NBA, a team almost always needs one top player.
But a successful journey will also depend on how well the players work together.
The Lakers, who have 17 titles, know this well. Would they have won in 2010 without Metta Sandiford-Artest, or 2002 without Robert Horry? Shaquille O’Neal, who won three games for the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, often talks about the importance of “others” – players who are not stars.
The Lakers franchise has found itself on the unpleasant side of the calculus this year. In the Western Conference finals against Denver, Los Angeles has a weak supporting cast. The Nuggets, who lead the best series of the seventh, 3-0, are not only beating the Lakers with the talent of Nikola Jokic, the NBA’s most valuable player twice, or Jamal Murray, their strong guard. Aaron Gordon’s courage, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s composure, Bruce Brown’s flexibility and Michael Porter Jr.’s tenacity. it helps them to do it.
On Monday, the Nuggets will try to complete a sweep of the Lakers to advance to the NBA Finals. There have been times when Jokic and Murray have carried Denver, but a key part of the Nuggets’ success is that they haven’t always done so. When Murray and Jokic started, the team’s players moved, and together they fought against every wave the Lakers sent their way.
“There’s a lot of guys that can go get it,” Gordon said. “Then we’ll just go with the hot guy.”
Jokic is the engine that powers the Nuggets, but Gordon also called him “one of the most unselfish players in football.” Jokic is averaging a triple-double in the playoffs, with 29.9 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.1 assists per game. But even if he is not well, his presence changes the game. That happened on Saturday, during the Nuggets’ 119-108 win in Game 3 against the Lakers. Jokic had just 5 points and 2 rebounds at halftime, then got into trouble by committing his fourth straight game in the third quarter.
“There was no panic,” Nuggets Coach Michael Malone said. It was: ‘Well, you’re out. That means someone has to step up.’ I think that’s what our team has done over and over again. “
The Nuggets players not only accepted the roles they needed to respect others, but embraced them to win championships. Jokic was the team’s only All-Star this year and no Nugget made the All-Defensive team; Jokic has never played with the man who made those teams while playing with him.
On Saturday, Caldwell-Pope scored 12 points in a tough third quarter as Jokic struggled and Murray bounced back after scoring 30 points in the first quarter.
The last time Caldwell-Pope played in the Western Conference finals, it was 2020 and it was a Laker. Murray’s defensive work. The Lakers beat Denver to win the West, then beat Miami to win the title. Caldwell-Pope knows what it will take for Denver to win this year.
“We’re No. 1 in the West for a reason,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I believed from the jump that we could win the tournament. That was everyone’s opinion. We knew how to have fun together and play together.”
Denver’s Jeff Green, who played 23 minutes Saturday, has been in nine of the last eight seasons. Porter, who the Nuggets drafted in the first round in 2018, missed much of last season with a back injury. He scored 14 points and led the Nuggets with 10 rebounds on Saturday. Brown, who had 15 points off the bench, signed with Denver last summer.
Gordon, drafted fourth overall by Orlando in 2014, was known for his dunk contest. His numbers on Saturday didn’t look impressive – 7 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists – but his defensive contributions were important. He blocked a shot late in the third quarter that helped the Nuggets stay ahead.
“He’s checked his knowledge at the door,” Malone said. “He knew coming into this year with Jamal and Michael that his role was going to be different, and he didn’t do anything about it.”
That’s not always the case for ambitious teams, and this NBA season provided examples of the tension that can arise. Golden State’s young players, for example, worry about being able to play. But Denver, who led the West for most of the season, is an example of how good it can be when the system works.
“Everybody realizes when we want something, we need fire,” Murray said. “It could be the Joker, it could be me, it could be Bruce, Jeff on the bench – whether it’s a penalty spot or a penalty or something. Everyone has something to come in and affect the game.”
The Lakers were another example of a team that tried to satisfy everyone in their work this season. In February, they traded Russell Westbrook, who was unhappy with the bench position. He joined the team less than two years ago in a multi-team deal that also sent Caldwell-Pope to the Washington Wizards from Los Angeles. The move from Westbrook was part of a larger effort to add new players, who have had plenty of power play. But against the Nuggets their shortcomings have been glaring.
The most notable example was D’Angelo Russell, who only scored three points on 1-of-8 shooting in Game 3 and had three turnovers.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham can only say this about the Lakers players: “I thought they did their best, all of them.”
But sometimes it takes more, like what Sandiford-Artest gave the Lakers in the 2010 NBA finals against Boston.
In Game 7, Bryant, who is the team’s all-time and playoff scoring leader, shot just 6 of 24. The Lakers relied heavily on Sandiford-Artest for his defense as a veteran defensive player, but in the game he scored 20 points and hit a crucial 3-pointer with minutes to spare. only one.
On Saturday, Sandiford-Artest sat across from the Lakers’ bench, a powerful reminder of how important players are to win championships.