2024 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets (2) vs. Lakers (7)

Nuggets-Lakers: 5 takeaways from Denver's dominant Game 1 comeback

A better L.A. script will be needed to flip what continues to be a one-sided matchup against the Nuggets.

Nikola Jokic had 32 points and 12 rebounds for the Nuggets, who began their title defense with a comeback win over the Lakers.

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DENVER — At what point does another team officially have your number? Well, with regards to the Lakers and Nuggets, now it’s nine — as in, nine straight wins for Denver.

Whether in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountains or at sea level in L.A., the final result has been the same since December 2022. And what makes the latest so depressing for the Lakers (and reassuring for the defending champs) is the Lakers still haven’t found the formula.

Well, after a 114-103 win in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series, the Nuggets are once again in position to sweep, as they did last summer in the West finals.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone mentioned a “comfort level” the Nuggets have with the Lakers. OK, then.

Here are five takeaways from Saturday:

1. Joker looks ‘Despicable’ to Lakers

The NBA fashion runway known as the tunnel leading to the locker room was a point of focus before Game 1 when Nikola Jokic of all people sashayed and stole the show.

With cameras popping, he arrived with a suspicious dark jacket with full length silver zipper and a large striped scarf, stealing sartorially from a famous fictional character in a hit move.

This was a bit of masterful product placement — Joker is participating in a promotional trailer for “Despicable Me 4.” He spills his guts to a therapist about being teased and whines: “They say I look like Gru.”

Gru is the sympathetic ex-villain in the animated comedy who’s fond of scarfs. Well — Jokic is fond of being a problem for the Lakers.

He triple-doubled his way through the Western Conference Finals sweep last summer, then nearly delivered as forcefully Saturday. The Lakers mainly used Rui Hachimura and Anthony Davis. Jokic was simply too clever and fluid for either defender.

It was 32 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and a pair of steals for Jokic, who dominated for stretches and never seemed particularly rattled by whomever and whatever the Lakers thew at him.

2. L.O.A.D. — Leaning on AD (and LeBron)

Once again, the Lakers asked much in terms of playing time and performance from their two best sources of such.

The good news: Davis and LeBron delivered for the most part. The not-so-good news: the Lakers will be hard-pressed to beat the Nuggets without help, which was lacking.

This was partly surprising and partly predictable. LeBron and AD were healthy all year. Davis played a career-high 76 games (the first time he reached 70 since since 2018-19) and burned plenty of minutes without issues. Both were All-Stars.

But this deep into the season, the Lakers would rather depend less on a player in his 21st year and a big man with a rich injury history. Davis played 45 minutes and LeBron 41. They combined for 59 points, but they spent incredible energy doing so in a series-opener.

LeBron dropped a 35-footer at the halftime buzzer to put L.A. up by three, and that was the last significant Laker highlight. The Nuggets ruled the third quarter and never trailed again.

Meanwhile, Hachimura and Austin Reaves, both of whom played well last year in the playoffs, were non-factors along with the bench aside from Taurean Prince.

And then there was …

3. Another playoff low from Russell

He threw a bad pass that was scooped up by the wrong team and led to a breakaway layup, and that’s when D’Angelo Russell heard it — and not only from the jeering opposing fans.

LeBron clapped hard in his direction and gave a “C’mon.” On this night, a troubling one for the point guard, LeBron had evidently reached the end of his patience — and it was only the third quarter.

It didn’t get better for Russell, whose struggles Saturday were costly — 6-for-20 shooting and 1-for-9 from deep, and a handful of those looks were wide open.

Last summer in the West Finals against these Nuggets, he shot 10-for-31 and came off the bench in the elimination game. New season, same result.

This was a reversal from what Russell showed the last few months. After a slow start to the season, his game took an uptick — he averaged 22.7 points in January and 20.2 in February while giving the Lakers a needed third source of offense.

“I know what I’m capable of,” he said, “so honestly I’m excited about that.”

4. Playoffs give Porter a reality escape

It has been a week to forget for Michael Porter Jr. On Wednesday, his brother Jontay was banned by the NBA for betting on games. On Friday, another brother, Coban, was sentenced to six years in prison for killing a woman last year in a DUI crash.

Porter skipped practice to attend the sentencing, telling the judge how much Coban inspired him during childhood.

“I know it’s not often that a big brother looks up to a younger brother,” he said, “but that is how it was for me.”

Porter used Game 1 to free himself, at least temporarily, from real life. He managed 19 points and looked stronger as the game progressed.

“I mean, he’s been through a lot,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “The kid’s a warrior … he knows he has the entire support of this organization behind him. So we’ll keep an eye on him but I fully expect Michael to go out there in his safe space, get on the court, get away from all that.”

To be clear — and to inject perspective — anything that Porter or his family is enduring doesn’t compare to that of the family of Kathy Rothman, who died in the crash.

And Porter did say in court to her family: “I know that if I were in your shoes and it was reversed, I would have a lot of feelings as well.”

5. New Nuggets bench passes first test

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray's 2-man game continues to be unstoppable in concert with the rest of the Nuggets' starters.

No Jeff Green? No Bruce Brown? No big deal — so far — for the Nuggets. Their reserves, which aren’t as formidable as those from last season’s championship team, did reasonably well. Essentially, the reserves didn’t cost the Nuggets a game.

And that’s really about the best Denver can hope for. No offense to Peyton Watson and Christian Braun and Reggie Jackson, but they’re not as proven or effective as Green and especially Brown were in the journey to the title.

At some point, their importance will factor into the outcome. It’s just that the Nuggets’ starters only committed one turnover and showed such optimal chemistry that Denver really didn’t need much else.

Watson, the rookie, scored eight points, Braun had five rebounds and DeAndre Jordan shook off the cobwebs for nine minutes. We’ll get a better idea about this group the next game. Maybe.

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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 X.

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