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Lakers’ fourth-quarter rally falls short as Nuggets win Game 1

DENVER — Forget the mile-high altitude, the strength-sapping lack of oxygen found here at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the Lakers looked as if they were running through waist-deep mud in the early minutes of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night.

Blame the Denver Nuggets, too. They ran circles around the Lakers while taking a 132-126 victory at Ball Arena, avoiding losing home-court advantage in the best-of-seven series, as the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors did in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The Lakers just couldn’t match the Nuggets’ early energy.

“It took us a half to get into the game,” LeBron James said. “That was pretty much the ballgame right there. We’ve got to understand we’ve got to start from the tipoff. They punched us in the mouth to start. They had (as many) offensive rebounds (13) as we had total rebounds (13) in the first half.”

But then a funny thing happened in the second half.

The Lakers rallied, narrowing what had been a 21-point deficit to 129-126 with a little more than a minute to play. Their languid start, when they were outplayed in every facet, began to become a distant memory. They found reasons for optimism after the game, after nearly completing their comeback.

If this series was billed as a matchup between Lakers big man Anthony Davis and his Nuggets counterpart Nikola Jokic, and it was across the known basketball universe, then score Round One to Jokic and the Nuggets. Game 2 is Thursday night, and the Lakers have until then to find some solutions.

“We’ll be better,” James said. “We’ll be better.”

Slowing Jokic, a two-time NBA MVP, might prove to be impossible for the Lakers. Or anyone else. But summoning greater energy for Game 2 should be imperative for the Lakers. They had no answer for Jokic, who led the Nuggets with his sixth triple-double (34 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists) of this postseason.

Jamal Murray had 31 points despite playing with a non-COVID-19-related illness. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a former Laker, scored 21.

The Nuggets seemed bound and determined right from the start to erase any and all memories of past playoff failures against the Lakers, who won all seven previous matchups, including a 4-1 series victory in the 2020 conference finals en route to the franchise’s record-tying 17th NBA championship.

The Lakers weren’t ready for what hit them Tuesday.

It was a full frontal assault.

Nothing tricky or new or different.

Davis countered Jokic with 40 points on 14-for-23 shooting and 10 rebounds. James had 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, playing the sort of bully ball he used in the Lakers’ series-clinching victory over the Warriors in Game 6 on Friday at Crypto.com Arena. Austin Reaves had 23 points.

“A.D. was phenomenal,” James said of Davis.

The Lakers were hammered on the boards by 47-30, however.

“My first inclination, it’s not even a size factor,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s a mobility factor. Meaning, the bodies. We had guys, multiple guys, just standing around. No one is seeking out a hit. No one is … selling out, going after the basketball. A couple of times, the ball just dropped to the ground and someone from their team swooped in and grabbed it.”

The opening minutes proved to be the Lakers’ undoing.

They trailed 72-54 at halftime and were outplayed in every facet. They were slow to get to rebounds, to get to loose balls, to cover open Nuggets on the perimeter or cutting to the basket, to defend well enough in transition to prevent easy baskets and to stay within striking distance in the first half.

The Lakers got back into the game in the second half, and especially in the fourth quarter, with a bigger lineup, with Rui Hachimura joining Davis and James up front. Jokic had only three points (all free throws) and two rebounds and two assists in the fourth. He missed both shots he attempted.

Hachimura had 17 points on 8-for-11 shooting in a reserve role.

“Something that we just went to, a little adjustment,” Davis said of altering the lineup in the second half. “Different adjustment just throughout the course of the game. We did end up liking it. Stayed with it for a while. Maybe something we go to in Game 2, once we go back and look at the film.”

Asked about the Lakers’ second-half defensive adjustments against him, Jokic said:

“I mean, we saw it before. We saw it against Minnesota (in the Nuggets’ first-round victory). We saw it even during the regular season. We were just – I had a couple of turnovers. I had a couple of turnovers. I missed a shot. It doesn’t surprise us. But I think we’re going to figure it out.”

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