This is how the road ends.
The Denver Nuggets will engage in a fierce, entertaining battle with the Los Angeles Lakers. The Nuggets will push the Lakers to the brink, taking the Western Conference finals to seven games.
Sorry, the Nuggets will lose.
I know the arguments in favor of the Nuggets. Yes, this is the toughest, deepest team ever assembled in Colorado. Trust me on this one. I’ve been watching professional basketball in downtown Denver since 1971.
But the Nuggets lack the might to eliminate the Lakers in six games, and that’s what they must do to win this series. Game 1 starts at 8 tonight in Los Angeles.
There’s no way the Lakers lose Game 7 in Los Angeles. In their history, which dates to the 1940s, the Lakers are 13-1 in home Game 7s. (The lone loss came in the 1969 NBA Finals against Bill Russell and the Celtics.)
The Lakers are mighty, even if they’ve hidden this truth the past two weeks. They have a master coach. They boast a rich history. They can count on Jack Nicholson to hassle refs masterfully.
L.A. coach Phil Jackson has won nine NBA titles. Denver coach George Karl has won none.
The Lakers have rolled to the NBA Finals 12 times in the past 29 seasons. Meanwhile, the Nuggets traveled to the Western Conference finals once, in the ancient days of 1985.
Of course, the Lakers spent two weeks wandering through one of the more baffling playoff series in recent memory.
Los Angeles pounded Houston four times, winning by an average of 21.5 points, but found ways to lose three times to the battered Rockets.
Guard Derek Fisher was useless. Superstar Kobe Bryant was a mere mortal. Jackson, outcoached by old nemesis Rick Adelman, looked bored.
You could argue the series exposed the Lakers’ weaknesses. You could declare this edition of the L.A. basketball dynasty too smug and inconsistent to travel to the NBA Finals.
That’s what you could say, and every word would be reasonable.
I believe the Lakers will face the Nuggets fully focused. The Houston debacle didn’t doom the Lakers. It revived them.
Fisher will drop threes and play hassling defense. Bryant will return to superhero-dom. Jackson might even arise from his cozy bench seat a few times.
Don’t get me wrong. The Nuggets are achingly close to the Lakers. For years, fans waited for Carmelo Anthony to mature. The wait is over. Anthony is among the NBA’s top dozen players.
Chauncey Billups could deliver one of the great sports stories of the decade. If Billups leads his hometown franchise to a title, he would rank alongside John Elway. Colorado would have to make room for two ultimate sports heroes.
The Billups-comes-home-to-win-a-title story could be written someday, but this ultimate victory looks a year away. The Nuggets, blessed with new playoff smarts, will have the tools required to reign as the NBA’s premier team in 2009-2010.
But that’s tomorrow. Today, the Nuggets have earned hundreds of thousands of new friends, terrified the Mavericks and Hornets and walked away from a sorry history.
They will march to a seventh-game battle.
And that’s where this road ends.