The great irony was that Steve Nash was nowhere to be found. The point guard who had traditionally given the Nuggets fits throughout the Denver-Phoenix rivalry was long gone – off somewhere in Los Angeles grinning at the thought of playing for Mike D’Antoni once again.
Last night’s game – sans Nash – was there for the taking. But in the end, the wrong point guard took it.
With less than four minutes remaining on the clock, Denver was behind by just one point. After trailing 92-84, the Nuggets battled back, running the score to 97-96. It appeared that the team’s streak of good fortune was still intact. A sloppy game that lacked rhythm from either team was in need of a star, but the Nuggets came up short.
With 3:14 on the clock, Suns point guard Goran Dragic knocked down a three pointer, extending the lead back to four. Markieff Morris then hit two free throws – Suns by six.
After the free throws, Ty Lawson took the inbounds pass and rushed to get Denver down the court. Morris swiped the ball away and tossed it to Shannon Brown for a layup. Following a Denver timeout, the Nuggets again stumbled; this time Kenneth Faried was called for a travel near the top of the key. Dragic drained another jumper, and it was game over in the desert.
Suns 110, Nuggets 100.
Or… Dragic: 21 points, seven assists. Lawson: 12 points, eight assists.
It’s certainly unfair to pin a loss on one player, and it would be incorrect to do so to Lawson. But the difference in point guard play in last night’s game was glaring. Dragic shined. And while Lawson wasn’t necessarily bad, he did anything but sizzle.
Lawson is supposed to be the point guard of the future, not just in Denver, but in the West. As Nash and Tony Parker enter the twilight of their careers, Lawson, the Clippers’ Chris Paul and OKC’s Russell Westbrook are the heirs to the throne. To be fair, Paul and Westbrook currently hold superstar status; Lawson is working toward it. And Dragic is never in the conversation.
Interestingly enough, Dragic enters the year with a new four-year contract – a $30 million deal. Lawson is playing out the final year of his current contract, but he also just signed a four-year deal – for a cool $48 million. Last season, Dragic averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists per game. Lawson posted 16.4 and 6.6.
But still, Lawson was dynamite in the Nuggets-Lakers playoff matchup a year ago. In a series he nearly single-handedly stole, Lawson averaged 19 points and six assists. He was assertive and relentless. At times – many times – he was the best player on the floor.
As the Nuggets battle through a ruthless early season schedule, and as Karl continues to juggle lineup variations, Denver needs Lawson now more than ever. Finding their identity has to be one of the primary goals of November, and the process of doing so calls for a steady point guard who gets the most out of any combination on the floor. If and when chemistry is lacking, it’s should be Lawson who takes matters into his own hands.
Last night, Lawson didn’t do that. Dragic did.
Lawson plays more minutes than any other Nugget. He’s surrounded by a solid cast, none of whom “need” the ball as much as Carmelo Anthony did. It’s the perfect scenario to emerge as the team’s star. But that’s not happening just yet. It didn’t last night, and ultimately, that proved to be the difference in the game.
The last time the Nuggets advanced to the Western Conference Finals, they were led by one of the game’s great point guards – Chauncey Billups. The time before that, the same scenario was true, as Fat Lever nearly guided Denver to a trip to the NBA Finals.
Lawson has the ability to do what those point guards did; he showed that last year against the Lakers. But last night, something was missing, and a point guard named Dragic stole the show.
It’s too early to be too critical of Lawson, and one loss to Phoenix is still just one loss. But if the Nuggets are going to be as good as they can be, Lawson has to step up.
It’s his team. Or at least it should be.