Perfect at home in the playoffs so far, the Denver Nuggets are poised to take a 2-0 lead in their third consecutive series when they host the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Thursday.
The Nuggets used their familiar plan to perfection in the series opener Tuesday, getting heavy doses of two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and plenty from the supporting cast to earn a 132-126 victory.
The offensive output — led by Jokic’s triple-double of 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists — gave the Nuggets their largest point total over 12 playoff games so far this spring. Denver is now 7-0 at home in the postseason.
Jokic nearly had his triple-double completed by the end of the first half, falling three assists shy, as Denver led by as many as 18 in the first two quarters and by 21 in the third quarter at 93-72. It was his second consecutive 30-point triple-double and his third in the past five games.
When Jokic made a contested step-back 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter with the Lakers’ Anthony Davis in his face for a 106-92 lead, he merely offered a shrug toward the Los Angeles big man.
“Sometimes luck is on our side,” Jokic said. “It’s a crazy shot, of course. It’s not something that I work on. I’m glad it went in.”
It all fell into place for the Nuggets, who received 31 points from Jamal Murray, 15 points and 10 rebounds from Michael Porter Jr., and 21 points from former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“Nikola was great,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “His aggression, him driving the ball, dunking the ball in traffic. We always talk about an aggressive Nikola Jokic is a very effective Nikola Jokic. A hell of a job by him.”
Yet, the Lakers also will take optimism into Game 2. After opening with a smaller lineup of essentially three guards in D’Angelo Russell, Dennis Schroder and Austin Reaves, they went to a bigger look late in the game with Rui Hachimura playing the entire fourth quarter.
Twice the Lakers pulled within a possession late in the game, the second at 129-126 on a pair of LeBron James free throws with 1:12 remaining. James finished with 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. After a slow start, Davis had 40 points and 10 rebounds for Los Angeles.
The Lakers shot 66.7 percent in the second half and outrebounded the Nuggets 17-11, although Denver still finished the game with a 47-30 rebounding advantage after dominating the boards with 36 in the first half.
“It took us a half to get into the game and that was pretty much the ballgame right there,” James said. “We have to understand that we have to start from tip off, and they punched us in the mouth to start. I think they had more offensive rebounds than we had total rebounds in the first half and that led to them getting second-chance points.”
Denver holds the 1-0 lead in the series, yet both teams came away eyeing a path to the NBA Finals.
“That shot (by Jokic), I just looked at him and just smiled,” Davis said. “Nothing else I could have done; 40 feet away from the basket, one dribble, kind of throws it up and it goes in. Definitely one of them nights.
“You know, we’re encouraged about the second half, and things we can get better at and make some adjustments on going into Game 2.”
–By Doug Padilla, Field Level Media