But they may, in the years to come, look back on that series and see a critical catalyst in their leap from a good team with a great history to a great team whose history actually ends in a championship.
We’re always – in sport, as fans, in a country in general in things big and small – fixed on the moment, the now, the immediate. But it’s the long play – what Erik Spoelstra poignantly called the underrated power of “months of work, sweat and grind” on Wednesday night – that generally brings out lasting greatness.
And Thursday, in Denver’s 114-108 loss to LeBron & Co., you saw it all: the hard work, the sweat, the grind and the more months of all that to come for Denver, mixed in with the pill. bitter. of the reality so close but not close enough that they will struggle with for months, if they don’t make another 3-1 miracle comeback.
There was, unlike Game 3, a lack of physicality on the part of the Nuggets which shows just how difficult it is to muster such energy and momentum, over and over again, in the playoffs, and especially against the teams led by LeBron.
The Lakers turned the Game 3 rebound course into a 41-33 advantage on the glass. There was, at the end – in another close game, in which Denver again had a chance to erase a double-digit lead – LeBron rose to keep Nuggets phenomenon Jamal Murray and teach the player 23 years old a first person. lesson on the level of difficulty of making, let alone winning, an NBA championship.
“Helluva player,” LeBron told TNT after the game of his decision to keep Murray in playoff. “He’s one of the hottest players we have in the bubble today. Just use my length, use my athleticism, and be smart. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and the worst thing you can do is put a good shooter on the free throw line. Just high hands, I hope he misses a few. ”
It might not feel like it now, but LeBron deciding – and needing – to use his experience, talents, and intelligence to shut down Murray, and do so successfully, bodes well for the long-term future of Denver, if that is obviously not its immediate future. . And while Denver surely would have taken the win, NBA history says they are getting something almost as important: an education, an education that most former NBA champions needed to achieve that future they did. were dreaming.
It’s something that Hall of Fame player and two-time NBA Champion Isiah Thomas talks about often, including when he and I visited this summer after “The Last Dance”. He strongly believes in the lessons that come with losing to greatness, and seeing, firsthand, and learning, painfully, the line between good enough and almost good enough.
“The credit we give the Lakers and Celtics – and myself at Bird and Magic – for learning was so important,” he said. “This is how we got better. We had to go to school. ”
My colleague at CBS Sports headquarters and former NBA champion Avery Johnson echoed that same sentiment when I asked him if the Spurs’ 1998 loss to Utah Jazz in five games in the second round had played out. a role in the San Antonio title race the following season. .
“(The) defeat in 1998 was the springboard for us in 1999! We had to get tougher, smarter, smarter, more altruistic and play through adversity !!! Avery sent me. “Our apologies and poor execution were exposed, so we decided to improve in these areas. Pop and RC have done a great job adding tenacity, experience, and free will advocates !! ”
Denver wants a place in the finals and an NBA playoff championship. Yes of course. But most teams have to go to school first, educated by heartache, tight calls, best-of-seven-series beating, and an up-close look at a true champion.
Kyle Lowry was educated in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, and those lessons, when Kawhi Leonard arrived in 2019, helped transform the Raptors from an unreliable playoff series into a playoff star. .
LeBron James, the most trusted playoff player of his generation – and possibly ever – became that in large part thanks to his brutal performance and late-series abdication in the 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk and the Mavericks, by the way, learned their own lessons in large part, and ironically, from Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat a few years earlier, when they blew up a final for this team.
We could do that throughout NBA history of championship teams often forged by failure before breakthrough: The Pistons were swept away in the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals before winning it all. next year… Johnson’s Spurs routed by Utah in 1988… Michael Jordan and the Bulls losing to the Pistons in the 80s… those lessons and losses, Magic and Bird put Isiah and Detroit down.
Isiah knows what he’s talking about: Sometimes, no matter how painful, you need an education.
Denver could have won this game. They shot better than 50 percent from the field, were down three with 3:28 left and four with 28 seconds left. They could also have won Game 2. But a LeBron James save on Murray, and an AD dagger, made another comeback very, very unlikely.
It’s a painful, brutal, dreadful, insomnia-inducing reality for Denver.
This is why it can prove so useful in the years to come.
Murray and Nikola Jokic are stars. Michael Porter Jr., for all his inconsistencies, can be part of a Big 3 Nuggets. What Mike Malone preached has worked and will resonate more and more powerfully in the locker room in the future. A team with a vision and a plan – who know who they are and who believe in what they can be – has it all.
Especially now, as Isiah Thomas said, that in the hands of the Lakers they went to school.