Each week during the 2023-24 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
This week's question: Have the Nuggets become the Lakers' daddy?
The Los Angeles Lakers trailed the Denver Nuggets by double digits for a majority of a Western Conference finals rematch and never led over the final 44:54 of an eventual 119-107 defeat on the NBA's opening night.
The payback the Lakers promised the reigning champions never came. Not on this night. Not even close. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and their supporting cast spent the summer stewing over perceived slights and did nothing Tuesday to change the narrative from Denver's thorough playoff beatdown in late May.
The Nuggets deserved to talk their s*** then and deserve to talk their s*** now, especially to the Lakers.
James and Davis were on the Lakers in 2020, when Dwight Howard mocked Denver star Nikola Jokić throughout that conference finals. "Batman's coming for you, Joker!" Howard warned. "Thanksgiving, steak dinner, appetizers, filet mignon and potatoes, a glass of Champagne!" He and JaVale McGee shouted from the bench, adding, "Told you it was a feast out there!" when Davis scored on Jokić. And when Davis drilled his game-winner to take a 2-0 series lead, Howard left the celebration to yell at the Nuggets, "Go home!"
"For me personally, as long as it doesn't get disrespectful, I'm fine with it," James said later on their title run, addressing an exchange with the Miami Heat's Jimmy Butler. "But I've never really started up a trash-talking dialogue. That's just not me. I believe the way I play the game is enough trash-talking in itself."
That wasn't always the case. In the 2011 NBA Finals, James and then-Heat teammate Dwyane Wade poked fun at Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki's illness, both faking a cough to mimic what Wade called "the fun-loving story of [Dirk] being sick." And when James' Cleveland Cavaliers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, he promptly sported an "Ultimate Warrior" T-shirt. James later hosted a Halloween party featuring faux gravestones of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, along with "a dummy dressed up like Curry" that guests stepped over in order to enter a haunted house.
That comeback also prompted James to declare himself "the greatest player of all time." He has embraced the nickname "King James," tattooed "Chosen 1" on his back and hashtagged "#WashedKing" in defiance of all who consider the basketball mortality of a legend who will soon break the record for minutes played.
James plays for the Lakers, who have recently embraced HBO's "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty" and produced Hulu's "Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers," respectively critiqued as "an egregiously cartoonish and ham-fisted hagiography" and "a very involved commercial for a luxury brand."
And the Nuggets aren't allowed to return serve when they trounce the Lakers on their way to the NBA's mountaintop for the first time? (And for the "but every game was close" crowd, there is no such thing as a close sweep. The Nuggets trailed the Lakers for all of 2:29 in the 48 fourth-quarter minutes in the series.)
Denver coach Michael Malone took issue with the Lakers-focused coverage in last season's conference finals, telling reporters, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it," when the Nuggets took a 2-0 series lead. He wore a T-shirt bearing the same phrase at the team's championship parade and ribbed James' post-series effort to steal thunder from the Nuggets, telling "The Pat McAfee Show" in jest, "I'm thinking about retiring."
When Vic Lombardi introduced Malone to the crowd at Denver's title celebration, the Nuggets broadcaster said, "He came into this world as the son of a coach, but in these playoffs, he became the Lakers' daddy!"
That was pretty much the extent of the trash talk, other than Nuggets wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — also a member of the 2020 Lakers who dissed Denver — joking, "We had to give them that butt whipping."
The Lakers clutched their pearls and scoffed at the very thought of the Nuggets daring to clap back.
"I hear I’m on your mind that much huh???" James wrote in an Instagram response to Malone's retirement dig in June. "I mean I guess I see why. ... Enjoy your light but just know I’m the SUN. I stay on forever!"
"You're gonna bring up Money Mike, man?" Lakers coach Darvin Ham wondered midsummer. "The Lakers' daddy, right? That's what they call him now? The Lakers' daddy? God bless his soul. This s*** ain't over."
"It was just a lot of talking and 'the Lakers' dad,'" Davis added on media day. "There was just so much of that going on. All right, we get it, y'all won,' but me and 'Bron had some conversations like, 'We can't wait.'"
"There will be a time," James said of when we can expect his response. "When that time is, I don't know. I don't know if it's now or — there will be a time. There will be a time when everybody will get it, for sure."
That time was not Tuesday, when Jokić dropped another 29 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in victory, repeatedly backing Davis into the basket and holding him scoreless for the second half on the other end.
In other words, it was a feast out there on opening night, and the Denver crowd ate it up.
"This is you," Nuggets guard Jamal Murray joked to Malone as a raucous "Who's your daddy?" chant rained down from the rafters. "This is your fault. We've got to go in the game, and this is what you started."
“This is you! This is your fault!” 🤣
Jamal Murray called out Coach Malone when Nuggets fans chanted “Who’s your daddy” during their win over LA. pic.twitter.com/lVepdSmN3V
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) October 25, 2023
Listen, the Lakers poked a bear when they razzed a 25-year-old Jokić and his lower-seeded Nuggets in 2020, before he won back-to-back MVP awards and a Finals MVP. They can't expect the bear not to bite back once he's on top, even against a 38-year-old James, especially against the Lakers.
"I stay on forever," right? "This s*** ain't over"? "We can't wait"? "There will be a time"? Only one team is currently writing checks it can't cash in this rivalry, and it's not the Nuggets. We saw nothing Tuesday from the Lakers to suggest their reformed supporting cast draws them any closer to dethroning Denver.
So, yeah, talk that s***, Nuggets. It's the Lakers' turn to go home.
Determination: Fact. The Nuggets have become the Lakers' daddy.