LeBron James runs down the court

Game 4 Loss Ends Lakers Season, Sends Nuggets to the Finals

Despite the Lakers' best efforts and all the competitive juices they could muster, the Denver Nuggets again made more critical plays down the stretch to win Game 4 113-111 and end the Lakers season in the Western Conference Finals.

While the Nuggets are deserved victors and had multiple strong performances to push them over the top, the Lakers, who inserted Dennis Schröder and Rui Hachimura into the starting lineup for this last stand of a game, battled hard all night and put themselves in a strong position to extend this series and send things back to Denver.

Lebron James set the tone early for L.A., attacking the paint with determined post ups while also locking in on his jumper, scoring effectively inside and from behind the arc. Considering the heights he has been able to reach this season, it feels strange to call this a throwback performance from James, but he was able to access a level he’s rarely had to go to these playoffs and it was a sight to see.

LeBron would score 31 of his 40 points in the first half, with Denver having few answers for the level of force he played with when getting downhill and his ability to create shots and score through contact. LeBron would also finish the night with 10 rebounds and nine assists, barely missing a triple-double in what was truly a special performance in which he played nearly the entire 48 minutes after only sitting out the final four seconds of the first half.

The sheer number of minutes LeBron played, combined with level of effort and energy he gave partially explains the overall flow of his performance and the general challenges he faced to create the same quality looks as the game wore on. This was especially true down the stretch where, as the 4th quarter wound down on the team's final two possessions, the Lakers twice put the ball in LeBron's hands with opportunities to tie the game as the shot and then game clock were under five seconds, but both times he was unable to get a clean look off, leaving the Nuggets victorious.

Of course, LeBron was not alone in showing that level of competitive edge and desire to push the series forward. Austin Reaves played another strong floor game, hitting six of his 11 shots from the floor to score 17 points to go along with two rebounds and three assists. Much like LeBron, Austin attacked downhill and tested the Nuggets' defensive paint both in isolation and working the pick-and-roll to try to create good offense in his nearly 41 minutes of action.

Beyond LeBron and Reaves, Anthony Davis had a mostly strong night with what was also an uneven offensive performance. AD scored 21 points, but did so on 6-15 shooting, never truly cracking the code on a Nuggets defense intent on playing off him and trying to disrupt his shot in the paint with quick reach ins and smart challenges once AD showed the ball. Davis had particular trouble finding his range in the 3rd quarter, which doubled as the time when the Nuggets fought back and turned their 15 point halftime deficit into a five point lead heading into the 4th quarter.

In that final frame, however, AD did his best to help keep the Lakers attached and in position to win, scoring 10 points while going perfect from the field (3-3) and the foul line (4-4) while grabbing three of his 14 rebounds and blocking one of his three shots in the 4th quarter.

Ultimately, though, it just was not enough. Denver proved themselves the better team with the duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray carrying them when they needed it most, but also getting at least one excellent role-player performance to put them over the top. This game that game came from Aaron Gordon, who scored 22 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists while shooting 9-14 from the field (and 3-5 on three pointers).

Add this to the typically stellar play of Jokic, who had another triple-double with 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 13 assists, and Murray (25 points on 10-18 shooting), and the Nuggets were simply too strong, too together, and too diversified a team where every player showed capable of filling their respective role at the highest level. Which is why they are moving on as a deserved NBA Finals team.

And so, the Lakers season has come to an end, but they have nothing to hang their heads over. The team that started 2-10 on the season, dealt with injuries to their superstars that cost them huge chunks of the season, and remade their roster at the trade deadline, came together in the final stretch of the regular season to finish 43-39, get into the playoffs as a 7th seed after winning a play-in game, and then advance to the Western Conference Finals.

The goal is always to end the season winning your last game, but the Lakers accomplished a great amount this year and can build on this sort of success to springboard them into the offseason and next year.