Alexander: Lakers were swept, but they weren’t embarrassed

LOS ANGELES — All sweeps are not created equal.

The record book will show that the Denver Nuggets won four straight games to end the Lakers’ season in the Western Conference finals. You’ll have to look closer to realize that three of the four were by six points or less, including Monday night’s 113-111 clincher for the Nuggets, and all four were decided in the fourth quarter, one way or another.

Nor will the record book show what is now a familiar origin tale for this Lakers team – the 2-10 start, the 0.3% chance to make the postseason, the roster revamp that turned their season around, and a playoff run that rekindled feelings of the good old days among those who believe in Laker Exceptionalism and even sparked thoughts of an 18th championship.

If it’s any consolation to Laker fans – and I’m willing to bet it is – the odds are that Boston isn’t going to get banner No. 18 this year, either. The Celtics are down 3-0 and could be eliminated in four straight on Tuesday night by a Miami team that was a No. 8 seed, and the mood in greater New England seems to be a feeling that their team is embarrassing the uniform with its performance. That NBA Finals appearance a year ago suddenly seems so far away.

That could be a reminder that a franchise’s momentum is fragile, and whether this Lakers run turns out to be fool’s gold or the foundation for a championship run might well be determined by the decisions Rob Pelinka and his staff make this summer.

But the last three months were a reminder of just how loyal the fan base can be, and how fun it can be when they’re rewarded for that loyalty.

“Even though this is year one – and losing sucks, you know –  I think we have an opportunity to do something special here, also,” Coach Darvin Ham said. “And we’ve just got to build off of this. Everything we put into turning this thing around, we have to not only sustain it, we have to take it to a higher level, and that’s what this summer is going to be about.”

Their target is a team that has stability and a core group that has been around for a while. The Denver folks can complain all they want about being overlooked in favor of the glamorous big-market team during this series – trust me, they have – but being off the national radar has its advantages. The Nuggets have been able to establish a culture and nurture a core group that, as we’ve seen over the past week, is just about ready to blossom fully in front of the entire nation.

“I think I’m really happy for the guys and for the organization and just how we fight through,” Nikola Jokic said. “I remember the days when … you could hear the ball bounce on the floor and there was no fans.

“Just for the organization, just for the people, just for Coach, for all the players that everybody (doubted), I think I’m just happy, and it means a lot for me for the collective that we have.”

What we were reminded of Monday night is that any team with LeBron James still is to be respected. James played all but four seconds of Game 4, was one assist shy of a triple-double (40 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists), and had the ball in his hands on the final possession with four seconds left trailing by two. And it took two defenders, Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray – and, yes, maybe a little bit of contact at the rim – to keep him from tying the score at the horn.

LeBron James goes to the basket and gets stuffed by Jamal Murray

— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 23, 2023

“He just came out with a mindset to keep this thing going,” Ham said. “He came in the building, as he’s been all year, all throughout the playoffs, with a focus, a determination, to get it done by any means necessary.”

Consider, too, that James and Anthony Davis have been on the injury sheet before every game for the last couple of months, and that the foot injury that kept him out for 13 games from late February through late March was something he had to manage even after he came back.

“I think it energized me from the moment I was out for those four weeks and just seeing the type of team that we had, the type of energy that we brought into the locker room, the type of energy we brought onto the floor,” James said. “You know, I just couldn’t wait to join these guys with action and get on the floor and I knew how much I could make an impact with the group of guys.”

He will have the summer to rest and recover and contemplate. And while he said following Monday’s game, “Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about,” and speculation ran rampant in the wake of those comments, it’s hard to imagine that LeBron won’t want to take one more shot at a personal fifth title with this group.

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