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Alexander: Denver Nuggets, think you get no respect? That’s your small market paranoia showing.

DENVER — The disrespect card tends to be overused in sports, but the Denver Nuggets are leaning way into it this week.

Let’s see: Denver was the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season. The Nuggets were the No. 2 offensive team in the NBA behind only Milwaukee. They’re the No. 1 seed in the West, they’re undefeated at home, they zipped through the first two rounds and they have the Lakers by the neck two games into the conference finals. They have the two-time league MVP on their side, and Nikola Jokic is proving in the playoffs that he should have won this year’s regular season award, too, not Joel Embiid.

And what are the Nuggets talking about?

The national narrative. Being ignored because they play in flyover country. Smarting because LeBron James and Anthony Davis and the team from Los Angeles have been receiving most of the attention – and scrutiny. Feeling discounted and disrespected because most of the national conversation in Games 1 and 2 have been about what LeBron and A.D. haven’t done, rather than what Jokic and Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon and the rest have done.

Please. This is small-market paranoia at its most boring.

Consider, for example, what Nuggets coach Michael Malone is offering as a storyline. He groused before Thursday night’s 108-103 victory that, because of the Lakers’ inspired fourth quarter in Game 1 (after they’d dozed through the first, second and most of the third), “It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a series up 1-0 and the series is over in everybody’s eyes because they put Rui (Hachimura) on Nikola Jokic for six possessions.”

After Thursday’s game, and after the Nuggets’ own fourth-quarter surge had given them a 2-0 series lead, Malone doubled down.

“I think a lot of our guys, to be honest, they may not admit this or not, you win Game 1 of the (series), and all everybody talked about was the Lakers,” Malone said. “Let’s be honest, that was the national narrative: ‘Hey, the Lakers are fine. They’re down 1-0, but they figured something out.’ No one talked about Nikola just had a historic performance. He’s got 13 triple-doubles now, third all time. What he’s doing is just incredible. But the narrative wasn’t about the Nuggets, the narrative wasn’t about Nikola. The narrative was about the Lakers and their adjustments.

“You put that in your pipe, you smoke it and you come back, and you know what, we’re going to go up 2-0.”

Whatever gets your team ready to play, I suppose.

In fairness, a good number of the questions the Nuggets were being asked Thursday night were specifically designed to elicit those “no respect” responses. This could go back to Game 1, when someone asked Bruce Brown why the Nuggets were being doubted – even though they entered the series favored to beat the No. 7 seed – and he replied, “Nobody watches us. That’s why.”

pic.twitter.com/HGt6OYwEqx

— belal. (@itsbelal_a) May 17, 2023

And while Nuggets players and coaches also profess they’re not paying attention to the narrative … well, if they truly weren’t, why would they even discuss it?

“The outside noise is the outside noise,” Murray said after Thursday night’s 23-point fourth quarter and 37-point performance. “We’re the Denver Nuggets; we’re used to that. Even when we win, they talk about the other team. We beat the Clippers in the bubble, they talk about the other team. Same old, same old. It fuels us a little more and will be sweeter when we win the chip.”

Chip, for those who don’t get the reference, means championship. That almost sounds like a guarantee. Do the Lakers now have some reason to feel disrespected?

“Since we make the playoffs it’s like that, so it’s nothing new for us. To be honest, I like it. We don’t care, whatever,” Jokic said when asked his perspective on that attention deficit. Then he added:

“Even if you remember, even in the bubble when we beat Utah, they were talking how they blow the lead. When we beat the Clippers, how they blow the lead. Nobody talk about how we won the game. It’s normal for us. To be honest, I don’t pay attention at all.”

When players say they don’t care, and yet they keep going back to the events three years ago in the Orlando bubble and the way the outside world reacted … yeah, they care, all right.

Michael Porter Jr. probably had the most reasoned take.

“I mean, I think that’s probably how it is with most small-market teams,” he said. “And in this stage it’s just so different. This is a huge stage. A lot of people are probably watching these games that don’t normally watch the NBA.

“… We’ve got a lot of dudes who aren’t really big into the social media thing or feeding into that, which I think that plays to our advantage being the type of small-market team that we are. I don’t think we mind that at all.”

This is reality: The Lakers are one of those teams throughout sports that people from coast to coast either love or hate (and the number of Laker jerseys seen in the Ball Arena concourse Thursday night suggests it can be just as much of a choice in metropolitan Denver as it is anywhere else).

Likewise, James pushes buttons throughout the country, both positively and negatively. That happens when you’ve played at such a high level for 20 seasons and been in the postseason spotlight for so much of that time.

Also, the rest of the country loves chanting “Beat L.A.,” be it directed at the Lakers or the Dodgers. You think you’ll hear an arena-wide “Beat Den-ver” Saturday night in downtown L.A.? No chance.

It’s a fact of life in American sports. The big markets and the players with the high Q ratings drive the national narrative. But that doesn’t mean they win all the championships. That’ll be decided on the floor, and if the Lakers weren’t playing with sufficient desperation before, they’d better do so now. The big market/small market divide has nothing to do with anything once the ball goes up.

Here’s a thought: Maybe the Nuggets personnel and their supporters are spending way too much time watching ESPN talk shows.

jalexander@scng.com 

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