Lakers’ rally falls short against the Nuggets in Game 1

The Lakers comeback from 21 points down but fall to the Denver Nuggets, 132-126, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Lakers were down for nearly the entire game. A late rush gave L.A. a chance to steal the contest but, ultimately, Denver held them off and won Game 1, 132-126.

Darvin Ham immediately tinkered with the starting line-up. Actually, he didn’t tinker at all. He kept the same starters from Game 6 against the Warriors (LeBron James, Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schröder). It didn’t work very well.

Nikola Jokic just served everybody at the start. Coupled with the lack of energy from the Lakers (maybe it’s the altitude instead of attitude), the Nuggets got off to a 30-14 start. Jokic involved all his teammates and was grabbing every board in sight.

Almost immediately, Ham put in Rui Hachimura, who had potential to be a match-up problem against the much taller Denver team. He paid dividends on the offensive end. While everyone paid attention to Jokic’s immaculate stat line, Anthony Davis was also getting them buckets. But Jamal Murray was getting his shots off, too. Two straight buckets at the end of the half made it a 72-54 game and we seemed on our way to a blowout.

For most of the third quarter, it was an exchange of baskets (although Denver led by as many as 21). The Lakers did get it down to 11 points but Jokic hit a ridiculous three-pointer to end the third. The Nuggets were up, 106-92, entering the fourth.

The Lakers didn’t give up, though. Ham put Hachimura as the primary defender on Jokic while Davis would give help or/and roam around the paint. It paid off as the Lakers would chip the lead down. A three by Austin Reaves put it down to an 8-point deficit.

Denver would start missing and be a bit careless on the ball. The Lakers got a bit of a favorable whistle as they started getting foul shots. Finally, another Austin Reaves three capped off a 9-0 run to cut the deficit to 124-121. The Lakers looked poised to steal another Game 1.

It was 129-126, Denver, when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who got hot in the second half) missed a rare three, with under a minute left. Then LeBron decided to settle for a three-pointer off the top with 45 seconds left. It was a miss. Jokic would make free throws off the ensuing possession. LeBron would then lose the ball afterward and it was ballgame. Denver managed to escape with the win.

This isn’t anything new we’ve seen from the Lakers, whether it’s regular season or playoffs. They’ll come out slow and wonder why they’re lethargic. Darvin Ham loves his three-guard line-ups and it seems detrimental to his team. But Ham also gets credit for making major adjustments mid-game; he mucked it up against the Nuggets late in the game. The Lakers might have something going into Game 2.

Denver is loaded with weapons. Jokic is a two-time MVP and we already know how good he is. Jamal Murray is back from his ACL injury and can score with the best of ’em. Bruce Brown has been a thorn on the Lakers’ side all season. Michael Porter, Jr. is so dangerous with his length and shooting ability (also a better defender now, too!). Aaron Gordon is an athletic big body and he has become such a stopper. And KCP is also a very good 3-and-D player.

Anthony Davis finished with 40 points, 10 boards, three assists, two blocks, and three steals. Huge game from Davis. LeBron James finished with 26-12-9 but his last minute of the game was rough. Austin Reaves scored 11 of his 23 in the fourth quarter. Rui Hachimura was very good on both sides. He was a handful with 17 points.

Jokic was something else; he had 34 points, 21 rebounds, and 14 assists. But let’s make a note that he only scored three points in the fourth period. Jamal Murray finished with 31 points. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 21 against his former team while Bruce Brown came off the bench with 16 points. Michael Porter, Jr. had a double-double with 15 points and 10 boards.

The size advantage early by Denver meant they could get all the rebounds. At one point, it was a 20-3 rebounding advantage! Denver still ended up being +17 on that department, 47-30. But the Lakers now know they’re going to have to match them with a bigger line-up. I expect either Jarred Vanderbilt or Rui Hachimura to replace Schröder as a starter.

It wasn’t great that the Lakers didn’t get the win but they have to be encouraged going into Game 2. And they only have to steal one game on the road, right? That’s still certainly very possible.

But you know Denver will try to counter the Lakers’ counters. This is going to be one heck of a series.

Let’s see what happens on Thursday Thursday. We we we so excited.