Lakers fade in second half during Game 1 loss to Nuggets

Lakers forward LeBron James tries to protect the ball as he's pressured by Nuggets forward Justin Holiday on Saturday.
Lakers forward LeBron James is pressured by Nuggets forward Justin Holiday during the first half in Game 1 on Saturday.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

There are the technical elements of this first-round playoff series, the amount the Lakers can get into offensive sets, the right actions at the right times. There’s the defensive assignments, the decisions to blitz or to drop, to double team or to hedge.

It can be complicated.

Or, like LeBron James said in New Orleans, after the rematch with Denver was set, it can be simple.

“We have to play mistake-free basketball,” James said.

Perfection, of course, wasn’t possible. But for moments early in the first quarter Saturday night, the Lakers flirted with it.


James was transcendent, controlling the action, while Anthony Davis made the most of the Nuggets’ suspect rim protection. Rui Hachimura fought Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, while the Lakers’ guards, doubled and recovered.

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The work put the Lakers up double figures, Denver coach Michael Malone calling a rage timeout with the Lakers up by 12.

But in the big takeaway from the a 114-103 Game 1 loss, the Lakers got a reminder. The mistakes they’re certain to make, they can’t stack. The miscues can’t be unforced. The Nuggets need no help.

“We could have been better. I thought we played some good ball tonight, but we could’ve been better,” James said. “We know ... we just don’t have much room for error versus this Denver team, especially on their home floor. It’s just a team that’s been through everything. Obviously, they’re the defending champions, so you gotta execute, you gotta make shots, you gotta defend. And then you can’t give them extra possession.”

Lakers forward Anthony Davis blocks a shot by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis blocks a shot by Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the second half in Game 1 on Saturday.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

Lakers coach Darvin Ham let some frustration fly.

“It’s tough,” he said. “A championship team is not gonna beat themselves too often.”

Turnovers fueled a 8-0 run that quickly shot the Nuggets back into the game before breakdowns on both ends of the court in the third quarter put the Lakers in a bad position, needing to climb a mountain in Denver against the defending champions.


While the Lakers pushed and the game stayed competitive into the final minutes of the fourth quarter, they were, once again, not mistake-free enough.

Davis scored 32 points but got beat in transition defense. James had 27 but had seven turnovers. And the Lakers’ supporting cast missed too many shots too many times.

Jokic led Denver with 32 points.

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Saturday night, the mistakes came in bunches. With the Lakers down seven, a Russell three-pointer rimmed in and out. The Nuggets caught the Lakers out of position on the way back down the court, hit a three, and on the next possession, got a steal on a lackadaisical James pass to make sure there’d be no late-game suspense.

It’ll be hard for the Lakers to leave the arena Saturday feeling like a team that’s merely down 1-0 in the series. The victory was Denver’s ninth straight against Ham’s Lakers, including last season’s Western Conference finals sweep.

In so many of those games, the script was familiar. The Nuggets would press and press against the Lakers until, eventually, the pressure would be too much and things would crumble.

Russell, the target of the Nuggets last spring, bounced back during a regular season in which he set a Lakers’ record for most threes made, helping key their midseason turnaround.


But if redemption truly will be judged in this series, he got off to a rocky start, shooting six for 20 from the field and missing his first six threes before finally splashing one in the fourth.

“Definitely not frustrated about missing shots,” Russell said. “I love the looks I was getting. So, honestly, I truly mean that I’m excited about that. Knowing that I got the looks that I wanted, things like that. And we just missed shots. But I mean, you watch the film, you learn from it, you see little nuances that we could be better.”

He was hardly the only Laker to struggle from deep. The team made only eight of 29 threes, the Nuggets hitting seven more than that.

Another series key — pushing the Nuggets off the offensive glass — went Denver’s way. On possessions when the Lakers got the shot they want or challenged one the Nuggets worked for, Jokic and Aaron Gordon were there to give them extra chances to deflate the Lakers’ defensive energy.

After the Lakers cut it to six in the fourth, Denver got a pair of offensive rebounds before Jokic finally scored on the third attempt. A Gordon tip-in of his own miss while the Lakers stood watching was a fitting image near the final horn.

“We got to make that adjustment for Game 2,” Davis said of Monday’s matchup.

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April 19, 2024

The Nuggets had 15 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points, killers against a Lakers team operating with very tight margins for error. They also got into transition, especially in the second half as the Lakers tired, scoring 21 fast-break points.

“We can’t be bad at defensive rebounding and transition. It’s something that we struggle against this team with since last playoffs,” Davis said. “… Once again, that’s our Achilles heel. We have to be better in both departments, if not one.”


Said James: “They protected their home court. We have another opportunity on Monday to come back and be better. We know how challenging it’s going to be. We know how difficult this opponent is and how great they are. So that’s all a part of the game.”