DENVER — LeBron James is a marvel — still, at 34, with over 1,200 NBA games beating up and wearing down the feet and knees he iced at his locker Tuesday night. There is no one like him.
Taking questions after the Los Angeles Lakers’ too-easy 105-96 win over the Nuggets, James got sidetracked. He paused to steal a glance at a smartphone live-streaming his son’s high school game from California. "Get back!” Dad yelled. “Rebound!” Bronny James is considered one of the top prospects in the Class of 2023. No doubt Bronny one day will beat the Nuggets.
Because that’s what the Lakers do. They beat the Nuggets in playoff series (6-0). They beat the Nuggets in the all-time series (106-70). They beat the Nuggets in obnoxious bandwagon fans, one of whom started a fist-fight up in the 300s, according to theDNVR.com. Nothing that transpired Tuesday before a sold-out crowd at Pepsi Center should convince Nuggets fans that decades-long trend changes this season.
"They came in here and beat us. We have to be better," Nuggets coach Michael Malone allowed.
The Lakers and Nuggets entered the game 1-2 in the Western Conference standings. Good time for a statement game from the home team, right? Not so much. The Lakers flexed. They reminded the Nuggets who owns 16 championship banners and who's still hunting their first. While the Nuggets are the little engine that could, the Lakers rolled in like a tank: Anthony Davis, 6-foot-10, checks in for Dwight Howard, 6-10, later checks in for 7-footer JaVale McGee. Oh, and when James shook hands with Nuggets fan Peyton Manning on the sideline, it was proof God makes superstars in different sizes. Even the layup lines looked like an upstart mid-major taking the court against big, bad Kentucky.
All’s not lost for the Nuggets, of course. They’re still 13-5. They’re still operating with Nikola Jokic stuck in a funk. They’re still full of promise and potential. They’re still winning, usually, without hitting their stride and while playing the best defense we’ve ever seen around these hills.
“The Nuggets and Lakers, for many, many years, were all about ‘Showtime’ and the run-and-gun and putting up 150 points,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Not a lot of defense historically being played between these two teams.”
But if the first matchup between the Nuggets and LeBron James-Anthony Davis Lakers showed anything, it’s how far the Nuggets must travel to pass those mercenaries atop the West.
“They’re on a whole other level,” as Malone said the day before the game.
Hey, at least he’s honest. And if the Nuggets are honest with themselves, the roster as it stands doesn’t stand a chance against the monster lineups in Los Angeles, the Lakers and Clippers. The Nuggets must acquire a 3-point shooter if these numbers persist: 6 of 29 from 3.
That’s 20.7 percent. That’s not good enough. That’s why you trade for a veteran sniper like J.J. Redick, who’s toiling away in New Orleans and surely would welcome a move to a contender.
“Making shots” was the No. 1 issue in this virtual blowout, Malone said.
NBA TV ratings are tanking in part due to the league embarrassing itself in China, with James telling the free world there should be limitations on freedom of speech: "Even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
Separate his basketball from his absentminded politics, and there is no comparison for James.
James had 25 points, six rebounds and nine assists before retiring to the locker room to watch his kid’s game. Davis had 25 points and 10 assists. Together they are a 13-foot-6, 504-pound problem for a Nuggets team that is on the way up but learning the climb from here is only getting steeper.
Meantime, the Joker deferred to teammates who aren’t ready for this kind of stage if he’s not there to lift them up. Jokic had 13 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Not gonna cut it.
“I mean he’s an all-around player,” James said of Jokic, playing nice. “On the offensive end he can shoot, post, pass. You always have to be aware when he has the ball on the floor.”
As the Lakers built a 13-point lead, the best entertainment was Peyton Manning sitting courtside on dad duty. Charged with three tiny Nuggets fans under the age of 5, Manning accomplished a feat even more impressive than quieting Mile High during a Broncos possession: Dad got the kids to ignore Rocky the SuperMascot, who had dropped a pass from Manning at a previous home game.
The Mannings' might be the first kids in team history to give beloved Rocky the cold shoulder.
Best-case scenario, the Nuggets give the Lakers the cold shoulder and don't see them in the playoffs. But one way or another the final destination sure feels inevitable: L.A., baby.