Strike 1: Returning home with a three games to one series lead should not be cause for alarm, but there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about the Denver Nuggets.

Never mind that the 11-game winning streak is over. There’s no reason to believe that the Nuggets won’t finish off the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 at Ball Arena and move on to face the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs. Denver is a much better team than LA. And while it would behoove the Nuggets themselves to focus on beating LeBron and company one more time, the rest of us are free to speculate about the bigger picture.

And that picture doesn’t look all that pretty right now.

That’s because the Nuggets are 0-4 in this series in terms of playing anything close to a full 48 minutes of championship level basketball.

It’d be one thing if they’d fought back and overcome a double digit deficit once, maybe twice in the series. But the Nuggets have been flat, lackluster, sometimes sloppy and even soft in all four games against the Lakers thus far. Not once have they come out of the gate with intensity and focus, looking like the defending NBA champs. Not once have they shot the basketball like they’re capable of shooting the basketball. Not once have they come out and established themselves as a better than average defensive unit.

Even the very best teams are going to have off shooting nights now and again. But four games in a row?

And as much as we worry about the subpar play from the bench, the reserves aren’t the culprit. This is the league’s anointed “best starting five” we’re talking about. Other than Nikola Jokic, no one has been consistently good. There have been moments and spurts from individual players, but for the most part the rest of the team has been…blah.

Blah may get it done against the seventh-best team in the Western Conference, but it’s not going to work against Minnesota in the next round.

Start with the fact that the Timberwolves are much much better than the Lakers, including in the paint, where the Lakers have dominated Denver the past two games. The Nuggets soft interior defense gave up 142 points in the paint in LA. Anthony Davis is averaging better than 30 points per game in the series. Now, imagine what the T-Wolves trio of Karl Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and underrated Naz Reid can do?

And then there’s All-Star Anthony Edwards and his bowling ball drives to the hoop.

You know the Denver coaching staff is well aware of all this. Question is, what can they do about it? Cattle prods, maybe?

Motivation is a funny thing. The Nuggets players talk about playing for each other, the drive to win as a group, and more. They say all the right things. But what’s truly on the inside? Is that hunger still there after winning the title last season? Are they as driven to win as they were last year at this time when everyone outside the Colorado borders was dismissing them? Last year they had something to prove – and that’s a powerful motivating factor. This year, the critics are few, and the underdog mentality tougher to latch onto.

This year, the motivation has to be something different. This time around, no one else is providing anything from the outside.

Perhaps returning home (presumably with their shoes) the Nuggets find the “on” button and start making shots early in games, and start putting up a fight in the paint. Perhaps the end of their 11-game dominance against LA will serve as a wakeup call. Maybe that was one of those “good losses” in Game 4.

We’ll find out very soon.

Assuming the Nuggets can dispatch of the Lakers, when the T-Wolves arrive for another Game 1, the focus won’t just be on “The Life and Times of LeBron James.” Instead, it will be on the matchup of two of the best teams in the West (remember, the top seed Oklahoma City Thunder have looked great in their first round series) who split four hard fought games during the regular season. There will be plenty of national media types picking Minnesota to win the series. That alone should get the Nuggets attention and perhaps spark their collective pilot light. Nuggets Nation better hope so. “Blah” is going to get them beat by Minnesota.

But first things first. Let’s see Denver come out and put a decisive end to the Lakers series first. That would be a good sign.