A funny thing happens when a professional sports team pulls off two minor miracles back to back: minor miracles start to feel inevitable.
The Denver Nuggets have made a habit in these playoffs of not just coming back from two 3–1 series deficits to the Utah Jazz and the Clippers, but massive in-game deficits as well. And so when the Los Angeles Lakers blew open Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in the second quarter Friday night, it felt like just a matter of time until the Nuggets did what the Nuggets do.
But, of course, that feeling is more useful for making blowouts watchable than it is actually indicative of future success. And on this night, the comeback failed to arrive. Foul and turnover trouble — not to mention the one-two punch of newly minted all-NBA first-teamers LeBron James and Anthony Davis — teamed up to undo the Nuggets as the Lakers took Game 1 by 12 points.
Here are a handful of takeaways from the game:
Both teams started off hot in this one. Davis led all players with 14 points on a mix of jumpers, stepbacks and aggressive play that got him to the line for free throws. Meanwhile, Denver’s Nikola Jokic netted 11 points in 11 first-quarter minutes, and teammate (and Canadian) Jamal Murray got nine of his own thanks in part to a buzzer-beating three in Davis’s face at the end of the frame.
But everything changed in the second quarter. The Nuggets came out as sloppy and cold as Winnipeg in March, and the Lakers started the frame on a 17–1 run. As mentioned above, a major culprit was turnovers.
Through the first five minutes of the quarter, the Nuggets had more turnovers (six) than shots (five — all of which they’d missed). Even worse for Denver was the Lakers managed to do all the damage with Davis on the bench.
Any hope of closing the gap was quashed by all three of Jokic, Murray and Paul Millsap leaving the game with three fouls. The Lakers shot 25 free throws in the second quarter alone, roughly equal to the 28 the Nuggets took over the entire game.
While the Lakers parade to the line ended in the second half, Davis didn’t need much more as he stayed hot. He finished with 37 points in 33 minutes.
THE ANKLE ROLL HEARD ’ROUND THE GYM
Early in the second quarter, James stepped on Jerami Grant’s foot while driving to the basket, and rolled his ankle slightly. The grimace on his face, the slow-mo replay, and eventually the super-shot first free throw made it seem like a bigger issue than it was, but roughly a minute later he rose for a huge dunk and put any questions to bed.
45 seconds after tweaking his ankle … @KingJames did this
(: TNT) pic.twitter.com/rGanPevDqX
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 19, 2020
James didn’t need to score much in this one, but finished with 15 points on 11 shots, 12 assists and six rebounds in only 31 minutes.
After the game, James was asked about NBA MVP voting, in which he finished second to back-to-back winner Giannis Antetokounmpo. He wasn’t diplomatic.
Fair to assume James isn’t lacking for motivation at this point of either these playoffs or his career.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before the game he intended to play his twin towers of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee after giving them an average of 9.4 minutes combined throughout the team’s previous series against the uber-small Houston Rockets. On Friday, Howard matched his minutes total from the Houston series with 16 while McGee took the floor for 11, five of which came in garbage time.
And the bigs rewarded their coach’s renewed faith against the larger Nuggets lineup. Howard, in particular, was quick to shake off any rust that had gathered, blowing up Denver pick and rolls, and getting to the line eight times in the first half. For his effort, he got to start the second half in place of McGee, and put up eight points in the frame.
LOW-KEY DENVER STARS
Perhaps the biggest impact of the Lakers’ bigs was on Jokic, who had been one of the biggest stories of the playoffs to this point.
McGee helped set the tone by blocking a Jokic layup in the opening seconds of the game. Then the Lakers’ bigs played a big part in Jokic’s foul trouble, which resulted in just 25 minutes for the Nuggets’ MVP.
Jokic finished with 21 points but just two assists — his lowest total so far in these playoffs.
Murray also finished with 21, but the only other Nugget in double figures was Michael Porter Jr., who went on a late run to tally 14.
(Is that a Neil Young reference or a Taylor Swift reference? You be the judge!)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the Nuggets play an L.A. team super tight in the first quarter before getting trounced in the second and third, before both teams coast to the finish in the fourth.
The ebb and flow of this game was dead on Game 1 of the Clippers-Nuggets series. In fact, with four minutes left in Friday’s game, the score actually hit on 120–97 — the final score in Nuggets-Clippers Game 1 — exactly.
This, along with other recent evidence, should serve the Nuggets well in looking for reasons not to take the loss to heart.