2023 Playoffs: West Final | Nuggets vs. Lakers

5 takeaways from Nuggets' historic Game 4 victory over Lakers

Nikola Jokic does it again, fueling the Nuggets' 113-111 victory vs. the Lakers in Game 4 that clinches Denver's 1st NBA Finals trip.

The Nuggets team up to deny LeBron James' game-tying layup attempt to clinch a 113-111 win and push Denver to its first NBA Finals.

LOS ANGELES — On the last possession, the pass went to LeBron James. He drove the lane and was met by Jamal Murray, who reached for the ball and disrupted LeBron’s shot before Aaron Gordon blocked it for good measure. Nikola Jokic rushed over and tapped the loose ball away. The buzzer sounded.

The Western Conference Finals, over. The Lakers’ season, over. The Nuggets’ long wait for a taste of the NBA Finals? Over.

This was a series short on games, long on drama and fourth-quarter suspense … and Jokic. Especially Jokic. That essentially captures what you saw, what emerged from Lakers vs. Nuggets. And so, there was a transition that became official Monday: A team with 17 championships along with its legendary star playing his 20th season gave way to a franchise with no titles led by a superstar built for this generation.

So congrats to the Nuggets, who confirmed their No. 1 West seed with a dominant performance, and to Jokic, a two-time Kia NBA MVP who captured one major trophy — the Magic Johnson Trophy as the most valuable player in the series — and now begins the hunt for an elusive championship trophy.

Denver swept the Lakers and honestly, with a few exceptions during brief stretches, L.A. was never in control at any point in the four games. LeBron delivered a blistering if desperate effort in the first half of Game 4 with 31 points and then, somewhat predictably, was gassed in the second half and especially the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Jokic battled through foul trouble in the final five minutes and supplied timely plays and a few finishing touches that put the Lakers to sleep.

Here’s five takeaways from the Nuggets’ 113-111 victory in Game 4 and a West final that was a reversal from 2020, when the Lakers prevailed. L.A. captured the championship that season, and in a few weeks we’ll learn if the Nuggets can do the same.

1. The Joker is wild

Nikola Jokic dominates with his eighth triple-double of the playoffs, most in any postseason in NBA history.

Imagine being the best player on a floor shared with LeBron and Anthony Davis. It takes a special talent to rise above those two and yet Jokic did so with no doubt. Is he the best player in the NBA who lacks a championship? A case can be made for that distinction, and maybe, in a few weeks, Jokic will gladly surrender that distinction to someone else.

He had three triple-doubles in the series and saved his best for last: 30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, three blocks and a steal. But it was the manner in which Jokic chopped down the Lakers in Game 4, by being a constant presence around the rim, sinking crazy step-back 3-pointers — Davis shot him a you-gotta-be-kidding-me look after Jokic dropped one in the fourth — and coming up big in the fourth. After Jokic earned his fourth and fifth fouls in quick succession, Nuggets coach Michael Malone kept him on the floor. Jokic was fortunate he wasn’t whistled for a sixth when he made contact with Davis’ arm on the very next possession. Anyway: Jokic had three assists, played decent defensively while walking that foul tightrope and hit the eventual game-winning bucket on a finger roll to break a 111-all tie in the final minute.

“Give him his damn respect,” Malone said.

The notion that the basketball public is just now discovering Jokic is silly. After all, he was voted MVP two straight seasons and was runner-up this season. That’s called respect. What Jokic is finally catching up on is his time in the bright playoff lights. He has never played this deep into the season, which is why there’s a perception that Jokic is somehow being ignored. And it doesn’t take into account that, with Murray and Michael Porter Jr. dealing with injuries in recent seasons, Jokic had to drag a team of role players into the playoffs.

Well, the Nuggets are healthy now. He has help. And he has a chance to finally cash in.

2. Denver finally does it

This franchise has never won a championship of any kind, either the ABA or NBA. This franchise is due, and with the Milwaukee Bucks long eliminated and the Boston Celtics on the brink, the Nuggets will enter the NBA Finals as the favorite — finally giving them the recognition they feel was lacking all season.

If the Nuggets do break the championship code, it’ll satisfy all the near-misses and false starts of the past. It’ll make up for David Thompson stumbling down the stairs of Studio 54 in New York, injuring his knee and never being the same. And those entertaining teams coached by Doug Moe in the 1980s that were high on points but low on postseason results during the Lakers’ “Showtime” era. And Dikembe Mutombo clutching the basketball on the floor following the Nuggets’ upset of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1994 but soon losing the glass slipper. And eight straight years of missing the playoffs in the late 1990s followed by five straight years of first-round eliminations.

And Carmelo Anthony — the freshly-retired Carmelo Anthony — giving the franchise hope before forcing his way out of town and to the Knicks. But not long after ‘Melo bailed, the Nuggets made arguably the greatest Draft pick in NBA history, using the 41st selection in 2014 on a lumpy 7-footer from Serbia, and here they are.

3. LeBron gave it his all … does he have anything left?

The Lakers' offense grinds to a halt after a dominant first half in Game 4.

LeBron was at his most brilliant in this postseason during a searing first half where he scored 31 of his 40 points and carried the Lakers on a pair of 38-year-old legs tied to a pair of creaky ankles. At times it appeared James was the only Laker to feel the urgency. Yet despite his performance, the Lakers’ 15-point halftime lead vaporized in the first five minutes of the third quarter.

He just didn’t have the energy to extend this for an entire game even as James played the full 48 minutes. He made only one of six shots in the fourth quarter and, based on the fatigue he showed in the fourth quarters of the previous games, everyone could see this coming. LeBron was grabbing his shorts and breathing hard after chasing Murray around the floor.

What happens from here? LeBron turns 39 in December. He made the All-NBA third team in what was an exceptional season given his age and amount of tread wear. He has said he wants to play at least two more seasons to invite the possibility of being in the league, and teammates with, his son Bronny, who starts college at USC in the fall.

But he left the building Monday with a cryptic message which, if nothing else, will keep him in the conversation this summer until he clarifies it:

“I got a lot to think about,” said James, who will enter the final year of his contract in 2023-24. “Just personally, with me moving forward with the game of basketball, I got a lot to think about.”

4. Too little, too late from Anthony Davis

For three quarters of Game 4, Davis had an equal number of fouls and baskets. That’s never an equation that runs in his or the Lakers’ favor, especially in a must-have game. For far too long Monday, Davis failed to give LeBron support, nothing like their tag-team tandem three years ago for the bubble championship, and that’ll follow him into the summer.

“It hurts, it stings, and you gotta carry it into next season and use as fuel,” he said.

His postseason was maddeningly inconsistent. Davis had stretches where he dominated defensively, controlled the glass and also dropped a string of mid-range shots. He also disappeared, too — none more damaging than three quarters in an elimination game.

One sketchy postseason doesn’t cement a legacy, though. Davis remains a top talent and James’ best chance at winning a fifth championship. He just needs to stay healthy — a steep request for his body — and try to duplicate the 2020 postseason.

5. Aaron Gordon steps up

The Nuggets’ forward just finished a stretch where he defended Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Durant and LeBron James … and lived to tell about it. Then on Monday he gave a bonus: He burned that same energy on the offensive side of the floor and delivered his most productive game of the series.

When Gordon can score 22 points, as he did in Game 4, the Nuggets are that much more dangerous and tougher to defend. That gives them four players who must be respected, along with Jokic, Porter and Murray.

“I tell him all the time, just be aggressive,” Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “Our two best players, Jokic and Jamal, are unselfish. They’ll find him. If Aaron is open, he can shoot it. He should shoot it. He can score.”

Gordon was a No. 1 option for years with the Orlando Magic, then arrived in Denver as a defensive specialist. He thrived when the Nuggets positioned him within 15 feet of the basket, ready to catch lobs from Jokic or Murray when they saw double-teams. It’s a strategy to look for in the Finals. It’s a strategy that, if Gordon stays aggressive, should work.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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