The before. That's what this was — the before, the calm, the prelude to the pressure and press conferences and prestige. Ty Lawson, as relaxed as his saggy shorts, casually standing after the final practice before the playoffs, speaking to a lone reporter.
"I'm ready," the Nuggets point guard said. "I've been waiting for this the past 20-something games — like, can the playoffs get here already? The sky's the limit for us. If we do what we need to do, we can take it all." Like, win the Western Conference? "That's what I think," he said.
The strength of the third-seeded Nuggets is in numbers, but it is quite simple. Teammates can have a bad first series and the Nuggets might still advance. But if Lawson isn't awesome, this thing could be over before May.
"His ability to attack is so important to what we do," said coach George Karl, whose Nuggets open against Golden State at the Pepsi Center on Saturday. "We ask him to touch the paint with the penetration of the basketball 20, 30 times a game. With his speed, the pick-and-roll offense and his ability to get it in the open court, he gets that done most nights. And we don't have anybody who has that much responsibility on the team.
"On a consistent basis, if I tell Ty to get into the paint, he can get into the paint on almost anybody in any situation. And that doesn't mean he's going to score, he's just going to get there, create the defensive mistake and find the open shot."
After a big win at Oklahoma City this spring, Lawson was alerted of his alter ego. Told of "November Ty" and "February Ty," a confused Lawson asked if there was a difference. Before it could be explained, teammate Andre Iguodala chimed in with an emphatic "Oh, yeah."
It's apparent. In the first couple months of this season, Lawson was passive with the pass (and the dribble and the shot), especially in clutch situations. Denver did have 17 of its first 23 games away from the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center, and Lawson didn't have the most focused training camp, as he dealt with the looming, frustrating emotions of contract negotiations. But the new year seemingly meant a new Ty.
And, in his past 36 games, dating to a Jan. 24 win against the Warriors, Lawson has averaged 19.4 points, 6.9 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 40.5 percent on 3-pointers. That's Lawesome. Denver went 28-8 in those games.
Much of his success entering this playoff series is because of his growing confidence in his midrange jumper. By knocking down this shot — or at least scaring defenses that he might — it opens up even more space and opportunities for Lawson in the half court.
For the season, he shot 40.3 percent from midrange. But in games since Jan. 1, he shot 48.9 percent. And zeroing in on shots from 15 to 19 feet, he shot 44.4 percent for the season, 54.9 percent in 2013.
But he thrives in transition. The Nuggets led the NBA with 20.1 fast-break points per game, a large percentage because of his motor. With the basketball, he's on the shortlist of the league's fastest dudes baseline to baseline.
"You can't stop speed and quickness in the open court on misses," said Karl, whose team also led the league in points in the paint. "And we want to score quick. We have situations where we get the ball in the scoring area in three seconds, and I don't care how good you are in transition defense, you're not going to have five guys back in three seconds."