Alexander: Jokic dominates, but Lakers make Nuggets work for Game 1 win

DENVER — It worked in the last two series. The Lakers stole Game 1 on the road, stole the momentum and maybe stole a little bit of their opponents’ souls in the process.

It wasn’t working here. Not this night, anyway.

The Denver Nuggets were a consistently better team all season long than the Memphis Grizzlies or the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers’ last two opponents. And they are armed with arguably the game’s best all-around player at this moment. There’s a reason why Nikola Jokic won two straight league MVP awards and easily could have and maybe should have won a third in a row this year.

He is the NBA’s unicorn, and before you submit your arguments for anyone else in this league, chew on this: In the first quarter Tuesday night in what seemed headed for a rout but turned into a narrow 132-126 Nuggets triumph in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Jokic scored 15 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, passed for five assists and added two blocked shots for good measure, in just 11:17. He was the first NBA player in a quarter of a century to amass 10 or more rebounds and five or more assists in a quarter, regular season or playoffs, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Embiid game 7:
15 points
8 rebounds
1 assist
2 blocks

Jokic first 10 minutes tonight:
8 points
12 rebounds
5 assists
2 blocks

Real MVP.

— NY Sports Guy (eternal pain) (@_NYSportsGuy) May 17, 2023

He finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, his 12th career playoff triple-double (his sixth this spring), tying Russell Westbrook. The only guys with more? Magic Johnson with 30 and LeBron James with 28. Then again, Jokic is only 28. He’s got time.

Maybe his impact is more striking through vignettes rather than numbers. Like this one in the second quarter: Jokic taking the ball on the baseline with Anthony Davis on his shoulder, leaving him behind and befuddled with a quick spin move and unleashing a two-handed dunk.


— ESPN (@espn) May 17, 2023

(That play had the Nuggets’ hyperactive public address guy, or maybe it was the even more hyperactive host/hype guy, singing the SportsCenter jingle – you know, dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah – as in campaigning for a place among the night’s best plays. This should serve as a reminder. Laker fans, be thankful you have the treasure that is Lawrence Tanter at the PA microphone instead of the screamers who have taken over game presentations everyplace else.)

Later in the second quarter, Jokic drew a foul – well, kind of sort of drew a foul – from Rui Hachimura, tumbling over the baseline into the courtside seats. He got up and sank both free throws, and drew this reaction on Twitter from none other than former Laker Nick Van Exel: “If you can get away with a flop. Flop. It works. Trust me.”

If you can get away with a flop. Flop. It works. Trust me

— nick vanexel (@vanexel31) May 17, 2023

Yet for all of the Nuggets’ production Tuesday night, including 31 points from Jamal Murray, 15 points from Michael Porter Jr. and 21 from old friend Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, what seemed lopsided for much of the game turned into a nailbiter at the end. Denver was ahead by 20 with 3:28 left in the third quarter but didn’t seal it until Jokic made a pair of free throws with 26.3 seconds left.

The good news for the Lakers? They recognized that their energy and effort was lacking in the first half, and it picked up after intermission. The possible bad news? LeBron James played 39:52 and Davis 41:50, and accumulated mileage plus altitude plus one day between games does not do the Laker veterans any favors.

When the Lakers beat Denver in the 2020 conference finals in the Orlando bubble, they were able to throw multiple big men at Jokic, with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard leaning on the Nuggets’ Serbian star and helping Davis wear him down. The Lakers don’t have those multiple rim-protector types now, and Jokic is maybe an even more skilled player than he was then. A.D. alone can’t do it, and Lakers coach Darvin Ham utilized Rui Hachimura more extensively against Jokic.

“I was just trying to get in his knee,” Hachimura said. “… The second half, I think we did a pretty good job on him.”

Jokic had 19 points at halftime and 15 in the second half, and only six of his 21 rebounds after halftime. But much of the damage he does is in creating opportunities for Murray, Porter, Aaron Gordon, KCP and the rest.

“It’s a talented team,” Ham said. “It’s very few one-trick ponies that make it this far. They are able to put pressure on you in the paint, pressure on you from the 3-point line, very capable shooters, some of which are elite, and you know, you’ve just got to be ready to give multiple efforts.

“… It’s not any one coverage that you’re going to be able to stay in versus that kid (Jokic). There’s no one person that’s going to stop him. It has to be done by committee and you have to switch up. You have to switch up matchups at times and you have to switch up coverages. We didn’t want to go too deep into the end-game adjustments. You know, it’s still that ultimate chess game. … It (using Hachimura on Jokic) is one of the things we know if we need to go back to it, it’s there – along with several other things that we didn’t unveil tonight.”

In other words, they’re just getting started. And while it seemed that the Lakers were squandering an opportunity in Game 1, that fourth-quarter turnaround suggested that a tone was indeed set Tuesday, and not necessarily by the Nuggets.

“Thank God it’s the best-of-seven and not the NCAA Tournament,” Ham said. “It’s the first to four. We’ll be okay, trust me.”

Buckle up.

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