NBA Playoffs: Nuggets work over Lakers to pick up where they left off last year

April 20, 2024;  Denver, Colorado, USA;  Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) reacts to dunking the ball during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers in game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena.  Mandatory credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports
The Nuggets are still that good. (Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports)

The Los Angeles Lakers got off to an ideal start against the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. LeBron James looked like the best player on the floor. Aaron Gordon, one of Denver’s top defenders, got into trouble early. D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Davis both made shots. In the second quarter they rose by double digits.

And then, like every game in the Western Conference Finals last year, it didn’t matter.

After some early struggles, the Nuggets overpowered the Lakers en route to a 114-103 win in Game 1. They looked every bit like the unit that won Denver’s first championship in franchise history last season, which is bad for many more teams than just the Lakers.

However, it’s the worst for the Lakers, who have now lost nine straight games to Denver between the regular season and the playoffs. They last defeated the Nuggets on December 16, 2022.

Nikola Jokić was again efficiently dominant, scoring 32 points on 15-of-23 shooting with 12 rebounds, seven assists and zero turnovers. With him on the floor, the Nuggets were pulling things like this:

The Nuggets committed four total turnovers.

It has to be said that the Lakers at least seemed to have a plan. They played more aggressively in the Nuggets’ backcourt than most teams dare, especially doing their best to make Jamal Murray uncomfortable. They also made sure Denver didn’t overwhelm them in transition. It all translated into missed shots for the Nuggets for a while.

The tide turned late in the second quarter, when the Lakers had their largest lead of the game with twelve points. The Nuggets responded with a 14-2 run to tie the game, then really got going in the third quarter.

By this time, the Lakers looked exhausted and started making some bad decisions. Several possessions ended the way Denver would have liked, such as a Davis three-point attempt, and it took a while for the Lakers to get back under their feet. Midway through the fourth quarter, they managed to cut the lead to single digits, but they couldn’t get any closer.

As with the previous series, Russell ultimately looked unplayable against a team fully equipped to exploit him in attack and deny him open shots in defense. He finished the night with 13 points on 6-for-20 shooting (1-for-9 from deep). It’s not hard to imagine the Lakers adjusting to Game 2 with fewer minutes for him and more for the more defensive-minded Gabe Vincent.

There’s no denying that the Lakers went for it in this game. James played nearly 41 minutes and Davis topped the 44. Their reward was a rested Nuggets team that showed little rust after a six-game layoff, and things won’t get any easier from there.