Lakers vs. Nuggets score, takeaways: Nikola Jokic, Denver survive after L.A. mounts comeback in Game 1
Nikola Jokic had a monster game, but the Lakers came close to stealing a win
The Denver Nuggets looked like they were going to run away with Game 1 of the Western Conference finals after one half of basketball. A dominant offensive performance gave them a 72-54 lead at the half over the Los Angeles Lakers. Nikola Jokic played a historic half, all of their 3's were going in, and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference looked primed for an easy victory.
And then, as the Lakers have done so many times this season, they fought back. Stellar second halves from Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves gave the Lakers a chance, and in the closing minutes, they even managed to turn it into a one-possession game. However, they never quite got over the hump. The closest they came was a missed LeBron James 3-pointer as they trailed by three points, and the Nuggets ultimately finished the job to pull out a 132-126 victory. They now lead the Lakers 1-0 in the series, and the Lakers will face serious pressure in Game 2 to avoid a two-game deficit.
Here are the biggest takeaways from Game 1:
Darvin Ham's home run swing
Coming into this series, the matchup everyone was waiting to see was Jokic vs. Davis. The best defensive player in the world started Game 1 defending the best offensive player in the world. The offensive player won the first half comfortably. Jokic finished the first two quarters with 19 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists. This had little to do with Davis, specifically. He defended Jokic quite well. But in a one-on-one setting, Jokic is essentially defense-proof. What is Davis supposed to do about this?
Darvin Ham saw quickly that Jokic couldn't be stopped by a single defender, so he made a change. The best defensive player in the world shifted off of Jokic. Suspect defender Rui Hachimura took his place. Jokic didn't make a field goal with Hachimura defending him, and he attempted only two.
Hachimura's individual defense deserves plenty of praise. While he struggles to stay in front of guards on the perimeter, he's brawny enough to hold his own in the post against most big men. Jokic was able to coax help out of the matchup in the third quarter and turn it into open 3's for his teammates, but he never quite figured out how to attack Hachimura as a scorer. Davis was the biggest reason why.
Davis spent most of the first two rounds functioning as a help-defender. By sticking him on non-scorers like Xavier Tillman and Kevon Looney, the Lakers allowed him to impact everything else the opposing offense was doing. Hachimura challenged Jokic, but what ultimately stopped him was the knowledge that Davis was waiting for him in the paint.
There are adjustments to be made off of this adjustment. The Warriors pulled Davis out of the paint by using his man as the screener in their pick-and-roll game. That's easier said than done when the threat of a Stephen Curry 3-pointer isn't warping the entire defense, but expect to see Aaron Gordon serve as a more active screener in Game 2 precisely to combat this adjustment by the Lakers.
The first two rounds were littered with problematic matchups for LeBron James. With an injured foot, he just doesn't have enough burst right now to consistently get by big men on the perimeter. That allowed the Grizzlies to defend him with Tillman, for example, and with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks in the equation as well, the Lakers couldn't run pick-and-roll with James and Davis because Memphis would have just switched it.
But bullying smaller guards? That, James can still do. HeStephen Curry as a switch-hunter in the second round, and Jamal Murray was his target in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Over and over again, James used screens to force Murray to switch onto him. He'd either drive by him knowing Denver has a terrible rim defense or he'd slowly post him up, waiting for help that he could turn into open shots for teammates. He finished Game 1 with 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, but if Davis hadn't scored 40, James likely could have gone for quite a bit more.
There isn't an obvious fix here for Denver. They simply have too many small guards in their rotation to avoid getting switch-hunted. When Murray sits, James can turn his attention to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. For all of Jokic's gifts, his limitations as a rim-protector should give James ample opportunity to punish Denver's weakest defenders at the basket.
Death by depth
As remarkable as this might seem given the way this game started, the duo of James and Davis (66 points) actually outscored the duo of Jokic and Murray (65). It's not as though James and Davis went completely without help either, as Reaves and Hachimura combined for 40 points themselves. But beyond those four players? The Lakers got just 20 total points from the rest of their roster. Dennis Schroder started the game, played 32 minutes but only attempted three field goals. The Lakers lost D'Angelo Russell's minutes by 25 points.
Six Nuggets scored in double-figures in Game 1, but perhaps more importantly, all six proved comfortable carrying the Denver offense for stretches. The Nuggets don't win Game 1 without Bruce Brown turning dribble handoffs into downhill layups against the Laker bench in the second quarter. Caldwell-Pope's fourth-quarter shooting helped keep the Lakers at bay during their comeback, and Michael Porter Jr. took advantage of his size advantage over Austin Reaves to pull in 10 rebounds. Gordon had a slow night, but otherwise, every major Nugget stepped up.
That represents a fundamental difference in the ways that the Lakers and Nuggets rely on their role players. So often this postseason, Laker wins have boiled down to a single explosive performance from someone in the supporting cast. Think Hachimura's Game 1 shooting display against Memphis in the first round or Lonnie Walker's 15 fourth-quarter points to sink Golden State in Game 4 in the last round. The Lakers got two such performances in Game 1 tonight out of Reaves and Hachimura.
But Denver's role players are far more reliable as steady cogs in a dominating machine. Caldwell-Pope made shots that Jokic has been creating for him all season. Brown has thrived as a bench-unit ball-handler from the moment he arrived in Denver. The Nuggets have defined roles. The Lakers have a number of individual scorers vying for minutes. That was the difference in Game 1. Denver's depth was just a little bit better.
Sloppy ending for the Lakers
The Lakers turned the ball over down five, and then they wasted several seconds waiting to foul. Now they trail by six with 10.9 on the clock. Never say never, but it certainly looks like the Nuggets are about to take a 1-0 lead.
That might do it
Anthony Davis fouls Nikola Jokic with 26.3 remaining. Jokic sinks both free throws. Lakers call timeout, but it's a five-point game. The Lakers will have to play the free throw game now if they hope to steal the win.
A bad, bad foul
Michael Porter Jr. just tried to jump the passing lane and clinch the win on a steal. Instead he shoulders LeBron James and gives the Lakers two free throws with 1:12 remaining. You can't stop the clock for a desperate opponent. That's an unnecessary risk that really hurt Denver.
The game might've just swung
LeBron James very nearly cut the lead to two. The ball rimmed out. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope fought for the loose ball. Jamal Murray turned it into an alley-oop for Aaron Gordon.
It's a one-possession game!
A 9-0 Laker run has the Denver lead down to 124-121. The adjustment to put Rui Hachimura on Nikola Jokic has flustered the Nuggets, and now Denver is struggling to do much of anything offensively.
Nuggets missing some jumpers
Denver's offensive explosion tonight has come in part because of their hot shooting from deep off of passes from Jokic. Well, those shots aren't going in. Meanwhile, the bully ball the Lakers are playing is still succeeding. The Nuggets are going to have to grind out some tough points to finish this game.
Anthony Davis having a quiet all-timer
Anthony Davis has 38 points... and it's going to be forgotten because Nikola Jokic has outplayed him comfortably. That is a scary proposition for the Lakers. Davis is an inconsistent offensive player. If he can't contain Jokic defensively, this series might not go on for much longer.
We've got another big review. Dennis Schroder gets called for a foul on that Jamal Murray shot, but Darvin Ham thinks that was clean defense. The replay proves him incorrect, however, so Murray gets two free throws.
Both teams shooting above their heads from deep
The Lakers are now shooting 9-of-19 from deep. The Nuggets are shooting 15-of-28. It seems as though every time one team makes a 3, the other answers with one of their own.
It's still a foul on Denver, but on Jokic, not Murray. That removes Jamal Murray's fifth foul, which was the entire goal of the challenge for the Nuggets.
A huge challenge
Jamal Murray just picked up his fifth foul, and Michael Malone decides to challenge. That's certainly a foul, but it looks as though it was on Jokic, not Murray. Jokic isn't in foul trouble, so that's a change Denver would welcome.
Nuggets attacking Lakers schematically
The Lakers are switching screens against the Nuggets, so as a result, the Nuggets are trying to get Anthony Davis away from Nikola Jokic and letting him work from there. It's working. Everything Denver is generating right now starts with Rui Hachimura on Jokic.
Jokic back, Davis isn't
Interesting gambit by Darvin Ham. The Nuggets brought Nikola Jokic back into the game early... but the Lakers left Anthony Davis on the bench for rest. It's a major contrast from Game 1 of the Warriors series, when Anthony Davis played the entire second half. Right away, the Nuggets get a 3-pointer and draw an offensive foul.