Anthony Davis stared. Nikola Jokic shrugged.
Jokic’s jaw-dropping 3-pointer to close the third quarter served as the capstone moment of Tuesday’s riveting Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Nuggets’ 132-126 win over the Lakers staked Denver to a 1-0 series lead after Los Angeles cut a 21-point deficit to just three on multiple occasions in the fourth quarter.
Ball Arena held its collective breath and only exhaled when LeBron James turned it over with 18 seconds left in regulation, all but securing the victory.
The Nuggets survived despite a porous second-half defense that gave up 72 points. Davis finished with 40 points, while James added 26 points and 12 rebounds. Their fourth-quarter parade to the free-throw line kept it close.
“We’re up 1-0, so that beats the alternative,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone when asked about his relief.
Though his 3-point buzzer-beater was incredible, Jokic’s overall game was mesmerizing, too. He finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, routinely dicing Davis inside. It was Jokic’s fourth triple-double in his past five playoff games.
“An aggressive Nikola Jokic is a very effective Nikola Jokic,” Malone said.
Battling a non-COVID illness, Nuggets guard Jamal Murray poured in 31 points. By the end of the game, he was keeled over trying to find his air.
Denver nearly spoiled a 47-30 rebounding advantage, which almost always portends a victory. Game 2 is Thursday night.
After catching a rhythm to end the first half, Murray picked up right where he left off in the third quarter. He sank back-to-back 3-pointers to get Denver’s offense in gear and then handed off to Jokic, his favorite dance partner. From there, Jokic put on an offensive clinic. He bludgeoned Davis, then once he had the attention of the Lakers’ interior he carved them up with sublime passing. Midway through the third, his triple-double was secure, denoting another notch on his historic playoff march. Former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the beneficiary on many of those dimes.
This late in the season, Jokic’s moves were still impressing his teammates.
“That spin move (on Davis) was tough,” Caldwell-Pope said of Jokic.
Davis rained in jump shots from the mid-range, testing and working Jokic defensively, but he was indefatigable. After the seas parted, and Bruce Brown hammered a jam through the lane, Jokic ended the quarter with his preposterous 3-point buzzer beater. Denver needed it having conceded 38 points in the quarter. Heading into the fourth, the Nuggets were up 106-92.
Malone said on Monday that the conference finals was an opportunity and swore he sensed no pressure on his team.
“Just being around our guys and knowing them the way I do, you get a feel for guys and understand where they’re at,” Malone said before the game. “I think our guys have been great through the first round and the second round, and here we are back in the Western Conference Finals. But there is no tension in the room. I don’t feel guys that are being like overly tight.”
That was readily apparent in a rousing first half that saw the Nuggets stake a 72-54 lead, throttling and dissecting what had been the No. 1 defense entering this round of the playoffs.
As Jokic jogged to the scorer’s table in the second quarter to check back in, the crowd buzzed with anticipation. Though Nuggets fans had been treated to his dominance all season, Tuesday night was something different.
He dunked, twice, past Davis. He bulldozed the Lakers on the glass, outrebounding them himself, 16-13 in the first half. Jokic morphed into an unmovable grizzly bear, as dangerous on the offensive glass as he was on the defensive one. By halftime, he had 19 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham was highly complimentary of the two-time MVP before the game.
“I think he’s one of the most highly conditioned players of his caliber in our league,” Ham said. “He has a funny little run, bounce when he runs, but that kid is in shape. If you watch him play end to end, side to side, he carries a huge load, and he’s able to do it. Just the work he puts in on his game, the way he cares about his teammates, the way he tries to get his teammates going and the unselfishness that’s interwoven into his game and just his personality, he’s a great kid. … But you can tell he’s serious about winning.”
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