LeBron James wasn’t joking around during pregame. He got dressed much earlier than usual. He had a focus that emanated throughout the locker room and became contagious to his teammates.
Before the game, Lakers Coach Frank Vogel reminded his team of something they already knew — the Denver Nuggets were coming for them in the Western Conference standings. On this night, the had a chance to make a statement.
The Lakers delivered for Vogel, beating the Denver Nuggets, 120-116 in overtime, their second win this season in Denver. The win gave the Lakers (41-12) a four-game lead over the Nuggets (38-17) heading into the All-Star break.
“Every opportunity that we get to play in a close game versus a tough opponent, it’s a learning experience for all of us,” James said. “It prepares us for a postseason game where it’s going to be back and forth, back and forth.
“I thought tonight was a playoff atmosphere. Both teams being No. 1 and No. 2 in the Western Conference, jockeying for position.”
James scored 32 points and notched a triple double, while Nuggets guard Jamal Murray led Denver with 32 points as well. Anthony Davis added 33 points, including two three-pointers in overtime.
“They were special,” Lakers guard Avery Bradley said of his two teammates. “That’s what made them All-Star players and some of the best players in the NBA.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope contributed nine points and four steals, including one in overtime to ensure the Lakers’ win. Alex Caruso and Dwight Howard each scored in double digits.
The Lakers took an early lead over the Nuggets before Denver pushed back and surged ahead.
The Lakers trailed by 13 in the second quarter after a three-pointer from Denver’s Monte Morris. They struggled to contain Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets bench, which at the time had outscored the Lakers bench 20-10.
The Lakers needed a way to get James some rest, and did so at the ensuing timeout. Without James, the Lakers fought their way back.
“I think Dwight and Alex really gave us a lift,” Vogel said. “Dwight, with his matchup on the Joker [Jokic], the physicality with which he played. Alex is our secret weapon. He comes in and usually provides a spark off the bench. Those two guys were pivotal.”
They went on a 13-2 run before James returned and helped complete the comeback.
The Lakers’ first lead since early in the first quarter came when James hit a jumper to make the score 53-51. The Lakers held a six-point lead at halftime and that grew as the third quarter opened.
But Denver showed just why they are one of the league’s top teams, fighting back to tie the score at 66 with a three-pointer from Jokic.
Both teams played to the raucous crowd.
When James broke away for a dunk early in the fourth quarter, the crowd rose in anticipation for what followed.
Late in the fourth quarter, Davis got his hands on the ball as Jokic was trying to shoot. Jokic eventually got the ball up and in, but by that point the official had already called a jump ball, which Davis won.
With 3:40 remaining in the game, a fan threw a hat onto the court. James kicked it off the court so play could resume.
Moments later, Davis blocked Jokic from behind, then drew a foul on Jokic as he grabbed the ball. Davis’ free throws tied the score at 103. The Lakers had a four-point lead with 1:14 left in the game, but Denver closed the gap.
Overtime was evenly matched for a time, but once the Lakers took a 119-116 lead, the Nuggets struggled to score. Finally, Jokic tried to swing the ball to a teammate outside the three-point arc. It never got to its target.
Instead, Caldwell-Pope grabbed the ball and sealed the win for the Lakers. “I was able to get my hands on a couple of them,” Caldwell-Pope said. “Couple big ones. It was good.”