Basketball was designed as a fun game. Plopping a round object into a dusty peach basket was supposed to be a diversion, not a weighty, ethos-challenging endeavor. That's a broad oversimplification considering the twists and turns of the last 130 years and the unforeseen stakes that have materialized but there's a core truth in there. And a lens through which the Western Conference Finals begins to make a lot of sense.
The Denver Nuggets, a never-say-die band of misshaped toys and misfits, are having fun out there. The game, if you'll remember the Marie Kondo Netflix craze, is sparking joy on them. The same cannot be said for the Los Angeles Lakers, a sneering and agitated Goliath. They seem almost put off by the need to play a bunch of basketball games to actually claim their place as the new anointed ones.
That's right. The Body Language Knower has logged on. It's always dangerous to ascribe feelings to non-verbal cues, though that hasn't stopped a cottage industry from emerging doing just that on sports-shouting shows. This particular example holds up to scrutiny. The difference is palpable.
If the Lakers are trying to button up a season-long business trip, the Nuggets are reveling in their collective coming-out party. The party would be raging harder if not for the buzzkill of an Anthony Davis' buzzer-beater in Game 2 that stands as the biggest pendulum to this point.
And yeah, it's hard to have fun while going 6-for-26 from three-point land and wondering if Davis is going to go a full 48 minutes without a rebound. It's hard for LeBron James to stop and appreciate the moment when he's doing too much as he tries to do literally everything. It's hard to embrace a 20-point deficit with a steely reserve and wry smile.
But the dichotomy between Denver and L.A. didn't suddenly begin in Game 3. It's been there all playoffs. Hell, the Lakers haven't seemed particularly interested in merriment all season. Some of that can be expected with James' position as de facto president of the league amid an unprecedented storm of turmoil. Yet it's interesting that the 94-by-50 foot rectangle hasn't been his happy refuge — at least perceptibly.
Perhaps there's something to be said that the ascension to greatness is more enjoyable than fighting to sustain it. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray cementing themselves as superstars is more exciting than beating back against the narrative of a flawed and failed superteam. So it all makes sense.
It's not time for the Lakers to panic. And if they don't want to smile, that's up to them. They don't owe anyone anything. They owe themselves their best effort, which was completely absent last night. A bounceback in Game 4 would mean a 3-1 series lead, a safer edge than the Nuggets have erased twice in a row.
In the end, the overarching moods and vibes of these two teams may end up a footnote to a not-entirely-memorable gentlemen's sweep — nothing more than overreaching bloggers and pundits to latch onto. For right now, though, it feels like something that could be potentially very important. Like Jokic the Joker could be channeling the famous Why So Serious question as he carves the Lakers out of the playoffs.
If nothing else, the feel-good tenor and tone make the Nuggets even easier to like, their bandwagon entrances even more accessible. The dour, brooding default setting of James & Co. make them even pricklier, an even more unattractive rooting endeavor.
Again, could be nothing. Also could be everything. Something you'd see only under a microscope now that proves to be a microcosm later.