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The Denver Nuggets' unlikely march to the NBA Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009, during which the squad has overcome 3-1 series deficits to best both the Utah Jazz and the heavily favored Los Angeles Clippers, has been a joy to behold thus far, with September 15's clinching 104-89 handling of Kawhi Leonard and company particularly welcome ollowing the Broncos' embarrassing choke job against the Titans the previous night.

Even better, though, has been the sight of so many alleged NBA experts who'd already buried the Nuggets having to publicly admit that they couldn't have been more wrong.

Exhibit A is ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, whose exasperated reaction to the Clippers' downfall, shared on Twitter, is one for the ages.

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Of course, Smith is hardly the only pundit to have written off the Nuggets, led by center Nikola Jokic (dubbed "Stretchmark Five" by beguiled commentator Jalen Rose) and sharpshooter Jamal Murray (previously best known to the national audience for the Instagram sex video he mistakenly posted during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic). Pardon the Interruption cohorts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon each gave Denver no shot for a comeback after falling short in three of the first four playoff contests, and prior to game five, TNT's hugely entertaining Charles Barkley guaranteed an L.A. victory, declaring that "Denver's already packed."

After the Nuggets won that contest, head coach Michael Malone, speaking during a post-game media availability, laughed off Barkley's misbegotten prediction. "We have belief," he said. "I know there's not a lot of belief. I heard one of the commentators the other day say, 'Eight teams are left in the bubble, and seven of them have a chance to win a championship.' We’re the one he did not think had a chance to win a championship. But we do not listen to all that. We believe in ourselves."

When the Nuggets took game six as well, Smith made it clear that for the Clippers, who have been the odds-on favorite to take the title throughout the season, coming up short in the seventh and deciding contest wasn't an option, as seen in the following on-air blast.

You better NOT lose this damn series, @LAClippers!!! pic.twitter.com/ZIB3UjhRo8

— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) September 15, 2020

But lose the Clippers did, after once again blowing a double digit lead.

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How did Smith react? Watch and enjoy.

OMG CLIPPERS!!! pic.twitter.com/dsaqZmKyue

— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) September 16, 2020

Now, of course, the Nuggets face the Los Angeles Lakers, an opponent that could hardly seem more fearsome thanks to the presence of generational superstar LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who's been lighting up Denver for years. The odds of another victory aren't great — but if the Nuggets have proven anything during the playoffs thus far, it's that such things don't matter to them in the slightest.

As for Smith, we'd love nothing more than for him to have to record a few more videos like these.

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Lakers Roll Past Nuggets 126-114 in West Finals Opener

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Slow starters in the first two rounds, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to be in a hurry to put away the Denver Nuggets.

It was a strong statement to their opponent — and maybe to the NBA's MVP voters.

Anthony Davis had 37 points and 10 rebounds, LeBron James added 15 points and 12 assists hours after finishing a distant second in the MVP voting, and the Lakers rolled to a 126-114 victory on Friday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

The top-seeded Lakers opened a double-digit lead in the first half that they easily extended in the third quarter.

“It took a quarter for us to kind of figure it out,” James said. “Not saying we fully figured them out because it’s too early in the series to say that, but we started to get a better feel. Just started to get in a better rhythm defensively and we started to get some stops in that second quarter and we were able to build that lead up going into halftime.”

James acknowledged being “pissed off” at receiving just 16 first-place votes to winner Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 85 from a panel of global sports writers and broadcasters who cover the league, and the Nuggets may have felt the wrath of that.

“It definitely sparks him and like he got a chip on his shoulder like he’s got something to prove,” Davis said.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 18 points and Dwight Howard rejoined the rotation with 13 in a powerful return to the conference finals for the Lakers, who hadn't been to the NBA's final four since winning their last championship in 2010.

Los Angeles dropped Game 1 against both Portland and Houston before winning the next four games. The Lakers quickly knocked off any rust for another long layoff in the bubble against a Denver team that's had things much tougher.

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray each scored 21 points for the Nuggets, playing in the conference finals for the first time since the Lakers beat them in 2009.

Denver overcame 3-1 deficits against Utah and the Clippers, becoming the first team to do that twice in a postseason. The Nuggets immediately fell behind again, digging themselves a big hole when Jokic and Murray each picked up three fouls in the first half that just got deeper in the second half.

“We know how it’s going to be. We know we’re the younger team. We're just going to play through it,” Murray said about the fouls discrepancy. “We’re going to find a way and we’re not going to go away so easy.”

Game 2 is Sunday.

Davis scored 14 points in the first quarter, but the Nuggets shot nearly 64 percent, with Murray's 3-pointer as time expired giving them a 38-36 lead.

Alex Caruso converted a three-point play to open the second and start a 17-1 run by the Lakers to start the period and make it 53-39 before the Nuggets made their first field goal after more than five minutes.

The lead stayed right around there for the remainder of the half, as the Lakers paraded to the foul line while Jokic, Murray and Paul Millsap went the bench with three fouls. Los Angeles shot a whopping 24 free throws in the period — more baskets than either team made in the half — and led 70-59 at the break.

An 11-2 burst in the third blew it open at 92-71 and the Lakers cruised home.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr. had 14 points and 10 rebounds. ... The Nuggets fell to 7-22 against the Lakers in the postseason. ... Denver's 16 fouls in the second quarter tied the most by any team in a quarter this season. It was the first time this season that Murray and Jokic both had three fouls before halftime.

Lakers: Rajon Rondo had nine assists to give him 1,025 in the playoffs, passing Michael Jordan (1,022) for 10th on the NBA’s career list. ... Howard sat out three games and played only 4 1/2 minutes in the last four minutes against the small-ball Rockets.

VOGEL'S VOTE

Lakers coach Frank Vogel was a little surprised that Giannis Antetokounmpo was so far ahead of James in voting for the MVP award, receiving 85 first-place votes to James' 16.

“No disrespect for Giannis, Giannis had a great season. He's a great player, but what LeBron does for our team to me is unparalleled,” Vogel said. “To carry the threat of going for 40 at any point but leading the league in assists and quarterbacking our defense and driving our team to as many wins as we’ve had and our playoff success, to me he’s our MVP.

"But I understand how the voting goes and quite frankly our whole group and I’m sure LeBron would echo this is focused on something bigger than any individual accolades.”

MILE HIGH MICHAELS

Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he had been in touch with Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who told him about the passion back home.

“He's told me that it’s just so great to see the city all come together and unite behind a feel-good story in the Nuggets and we still have a lot of work to do," Malone said. “So we appreciate all the love and support back home, no doubt.”

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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