Despite rally, Lakers realize they have no answers for Nuggets

May 17, 2023, 6:36 AM | Updated: 2:20 pm

At what point will the Denver Nuggets lose at home during this year’s NBA playoffs? What seismic event or collapse would have to occur to send the fans home unhappy? Is it more likely that Bigfoot signs a G League contract or the Nuggets falter in the Mile High City?

Despite all the possible Hollywood outcomes, the answer wasn’t Tuesday night at Ball Arena. This time, the hometown team hung on by the skin of their teeth to beat their organizational nemesis Los Angeles Lakers 132-126 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

Surviving a brutal defensive lack of effort in the second half, Denver got away with one. Allowing a stunning 72 points in the final 24 minutes, the Nuggets showed “poise, not panic,” according to coach Michael Malone to take the victory.

“I told our guys wins are hard to come by this time of the season,” exhaled Malone. “But our defense has to be a hell of a lot better (to win the series).”

An Austin Reeves onslaught of threes punctuated a night where LeBron James and Anthony Davis dominated, scoring a combined 66 points. The Nuggets saw their hearty 21-point lead dwindle to as little as three.

“One of the biggest plays of the night was Michael Porter getting on the floor,” said Malone of a key defensive play late in the game. “That 50/50 ball he came up with led to the only transition points we scored in the second half on the Aaron Gordon dunk. Ball Arena went nuts at that point. That 50/50 ball was a game-winning type of play.”

MPJ told Malone he didn’t care if Bruce Brown closed games if Malone thought it was best. He has become a true team player and leader. His 15 points with 10 rebounds was a shadow to his blocks and hustle. A blossoming superstar is happening right in front of our eyes.

Sacrificing his body made a huge difference, as it was white-knuckle time inside the arena. It was as if Porter Jr. took a jack hammer to Cinderella’s pumpkin, destroying a fairytale ending.

Some Lakers fans dotted the front row along the floor and were seated in other nooks and crannies of the arena. The lack of fans wearing the free flatiron red t-shirts was noticeable. A Lakers fan dressed in a top to bottom Lakers uniform, including warmup jacket, was escorted from his front-row seat as the comeback poured in against the Nuggets.

His enthusiasm got the best of him, as his unbridled joy found him jumping onto the actual playing court. It led to a quick timeout with security. Like the team he was rooting for, he quietly returned to his seat, before LeBron and the rest of the Lakers took the L on the way out.

But it’s not as if this night was smooth sailing. There were loads of reasons things could’ve gone south for the Nuggets in a humiliating fashion. However, the leadership of the team wouldn’t allow it.

“I appreciate the energy he gives us,” said Kentavius Caldwell-Pope about Jamal Murray. “I know what he’s going through. It shows a lot of toughness.”

Murray revealed he came down with an ear infection. Malone said just a couple of hours before the game that Murray was questionable. Indeed, Murray looked like death warmed over after the game.

“You know how ear infections are,” explained Murray. “They hurt a lot.”

It’s another significant chapter of the “Flu Arrow” that was written. Feeling sick and likely unbalanced, Murray was sensational, dropping 31 points, including four critical three-pointers.

Murray entered the playoffs saying he felt the nerves before Game 1 against the Timberwolves. That emotion seems to only exist in a memory as Murray, game after game, provides clutch play and veteran leadership that likely will define his legacy much more than his freakish performances in the bubble.

What shouldn’t be lost in the Harry Houdini-like escape is the dominant performance of the Nuggets in the first half. A Murray flurry gave them their largest lead to that point of the night. Up 72-54 at halftime wasn’t quite the same 81-51 halftime lead against the Suns in Game 6 of the previous playoff series, but it felt darn close.

Nikola Jokic took down an unworldly 12 first-quarter rebounds, tying him with Tim Duncan with the most boards in an opening period since the 1996-97 season. The gaudy numbers just piled up from there. His 16 first-half rebounds were three more than the entire Lakers during that same time. When the Lakers called a timeout down 20 with 6:05 left in the third, Jokic already had a triple-double. At the buzzer to end the third, Jokic hit a 29-foot Sombor Shuffle to keep the lead at 14. He finished the night with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists.

Pope, who has been on teams with both James and Jokic, explained what it’s like playing with the two superstars.

“I feel the only difference is LeBron can jump higher than Jokic,” laughed Pope. “(Jokic) is just a dominant big man down there. Just (love) seeing him do what he do getting everybody involved, too.”

His teammate had one different thought.

“He can jump higher than you think,” added Murray.

It may seem crazy that the comparison is made in the first place, but as LeBron has aged and as Jokic has improved, they have slowly morphed into extremely skilled in the paint scorers who see the game like mathematicians getting their teammates rolling first. The similarities become more obvious as time goes on.

“That’s really offensive,” joked the Joker when asked about the comparison with the caveat that LeBron had better springs. “I’m joking. To be compared to one of the best ever, or the best ever, I think is really cool. I don’t know, I don’t think we have similar game.”

Jokic then paused, giving it some deeper thought.

“Maybe we have,” Jokic again paused, but this time waved his arms around in a circular motion. “Have a similar global game, I think. He affects the game in different ways I think. He’s a really good player.”

Perhaps this is the humbling comparison that Jokic is striving for. While the MVP awards obviously don’t move the needle, playing at the absolute top level and winning does mean something. It was a small moment of reflection that seemed to matter to the humble Serbian when all else seems so minuscule.

The Lakers have plenty of talent. But the question they must answer is what in the world will happen if Davis or James have an off night? Will Austin Reeves drain five threes in each game? Won’t the Nuggets quickly figure out a counter for Rui Hachimura?

It’s unlikely the Lakers will have many more games in them like they did on Tuesday night. They played exactly how they should’ve if they wanted to win. While they seemed encouraged after the game that they are close, the truth may be that this will be the only chance they have to win in Denver.

What happens in L.A. will stay in L.A. Likely, there will be a few more whistles and breaks going the Lakers way. But the unanswerable question remains, how do you beat the Nuggets in Denver? It was close but no cigar for the Lakers in Game 1.

Thursday night remains daunting.



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