Austin Reaves shoots a three point basket
Austin Reaves shoots a three point basket

Lakers Comeback Falls Short, Nuggets Claim Game 1

After trailing by as many as 21 points, the Lakers struck a furious comeback in the 2nd half to get the game within 3 points but could never get over the hump and fell to the Nuggets 132-126 to lose Game 1.

This game was a tale of two halves, with the Nuggets striking early with energy and determination to not allow the Lakers to get a Game 1 victory as they did in the first two rounds. The Nuggets got into wonderful early rhythm against the Lakers defense, who carried over their three-guard starting lineup for Game 6 against the Warriors. Denver went into the post to Jokic early and often and the Lakers opted to send help and then rotate out to the Nuggets' shooters, asking them to prove they would hit shots.

The Nuggets, however, obliged by knocking down jumpers and making the Lakers defense pay. Jokic, who finished with 14 assists to go along with 34 points and 21 rebounds, orchestrated their entire attack, scoring on an array of shots in and around the paint. Jokic, renowned for his patience, did most of his work in the flow of Denver's offense, and then moved the ball onto teammates for good looks whenever the Lakers defense sent extra attention his way.

With Jokic scoring and assisting well, and the Nuggets hitting shots at a high rate from all over the floor in the half court while getting good looks in transition, they rode their offensive exploits to a 12-point lead after the 1st quarter and an 18-point lead at the half.

With Denver exerting their will and scoring with strong efficiency, the Lakers found themselves in a position where they could either let go of the rope and start to get ready for Game 2 or take some of the things that worked for them in the 1st half, try to tighten up their defense, and make a game of it. And, as a team that has shown great resiliency all season, it should be no surprise that they chose the latter.

Capitalizing on a Nuggets defense that did not have the same vigor of their early game runs, the Lakers methodically attacked the paint and tried to hunt mismatches. After recognizing Denver was content to switch almost every on-ball screen that did not involve Jokic defensively, LeBron took more control of the offense and began to call Denver's guards into screen actions so he could go to work.

Possession after possession, LeBron turned ball screens into post up chances where he could back a smaller defender down and either score himself or draw help and move the ball onto teammates who could either shoot or continue that advantage to create an even better shot for a teammate. LeBron rode this strategy to a near triple-double of his own, tallying 26 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists.

LeBron wasn't alone in looking to score inside, either. While Anthony Davis had his hands full defensively vs. Jokic, he put in a lot of work to get some of those points back on the other end. AD eventually found a wonderful rhythm with his in-between and mid-range game, hitting a variety of push shots, half hooks, and floaters to help keep the Lakers offense humming. Davis would finish the game with 40 points on 14-23 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds, three assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

Despite these offensive exploits, the game really turned more in the Lakers' direction after a defensive adjustment of playing some of their bigger lineups, and in particular slotting Rui Hachimura next to LeBron and AD in the front court as the primary defender on Jokic. This switch put AD into more help positions defensively while leaning on Rui to use his combination of strength, length, and foot speed to disrupt Jokic on the perimeter and then funnel him towards AD's help in the paint.

Ultimately, while this strategy proved effective, it was too little too late vs. a very good Nuggets team that took control of the game early and made enough plays and tough shots late to fend the Lakers off. They deserve all the credit for coming out ready to play, hitting shots, getting good performances from their bench, and playing with the requisite intensity of a team who understood the need to defend their home court.

The Lakers will now look to Thursday's Game 2 in an attempt to get their split by learning from this game and trying to build on some of their second half successes to play the complete game they will need to beat an excellent Nuggets team.