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LeBron James scores 40, but Nikola Jokic, Nuggets complete sweep of Lakers

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James wasn’t ready for vacation, wasn’t prepared to see the Denver Nuggets celebrating the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals on the Crypto.com Arena floor. ESPN’s cameras caught him already on the court early Monday afternoon, shooting basket after basket.

As he warmed up for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, a dress rehearsal for the championship ceremony was underway at the other end of the court. He appeared to pay no attention to it, focused on the task at hand, staving off elimination in the best-of-seven series.

James turned in a vintage performance, scoring 31 of his team-leading 40 points in the first half, but neither he nor his teammates could prevent the Nuggets from rallying from a 15-point halftime deficit to take a 113-111 victory from the Lakers and complete a four-game sweep.

James’ 40-point game was his 29th of 40 or more in the playoffs, second only to Michael Jordan’s 38 in league history. He missed two shots in the closing seconds that could have tied the score and sent the game to overtime, however, and the Lakers lost a playoff series to the Nuggets for the first time in eight meetings.

James also had 10 rebounds and nine assists, playing all but four seconds in Game 4.

“He came out with the mindset to keep this thing going,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of the 38-year-old James, who completed his 20th NBA season. “He came in the building, as he has done all year, throughout the playoffs, with a focus, a determination to get it done by any means necessary.”

The Nuggets advanced to face the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics in their first NBA finals appearance in the franchise’s 47 seasons in the league after one ABA finals in nine seasons in the renegade league. The Heat leads the Eastern Conference finals 3-0. Game 4 is Tuesday.

The Lakers departed for the offseason far later than anyone might have expected after they began the season with a 2-10 record and then underwent a roster overhaul before the Feb. 9 trade deadline that ignited an unlikely charge to the No. 7 seed in the West and, eventually, the conference finals.

Denver sent the Lakers packing by outscoring them 36-16 during the third quarter, wiping out a 15-point deficit at halftime. The Lakers’ 73 points in the first half were the most they had scored in a half in the playoffs. Their 16 points in the third quarter were the fewest they scored in a quarter.

As in the previous three games, the Nuggets held off the Lakers in the fourth quarter. Nikola Jokic had his eighth triple-double of the playoffs with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. His driving layup broke a 111-111 tie with 57.1 seconds left. Jamal Murray had 25 points and Aaron Gordon had 22.

“Me and A.D. (Anthony Davis) were talking in the locker room for a little bit and I think we came to the consensus that they’re one of the best teams, probably the best teams, we’ve played since we’ve been together for our four years (with the Lakers),” James said of the Nuggets.

“Well orchestrated, well put together. They have scoring. They have playmaking. They have smarts. They have length. They have depth. And one thing about their team, when you have a guy like ‘Joker,’ as big as he is but as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make any mistakes versus a guy like that.”

James scored 31 points on 11-for-13 shooting in the first half, setting a career playoff high. He started by scoring 21 in the first quarter to tie a Lakers playoff record for a quarter, set by Kobe Bryant against the Phoenix Suns in the third quarter of a conference finals game May 17, 2010.

James’ previous best for points in a playoff half was 30.

His opening salvo wasn’t just about sinking jump shots from the perimeter or scoring on determined drives to the basket. He also found seldom-used backup Tristan Thompson in full flight down the left flank for a fastbreak dunk in the second quarter that gave the Lakers a 41-33 lead.

In addition, James almost came to blows with Gordon during a second-quarter skirmish that earned each player a technical foul. James had grown irritated when Gordon hit him in the face and they shoved each other several times before teammates kept them apart with 8:54 left in the half.

Lakers fans loved it, roaring their approval of James’ aggression.

“Let’s go Lakers,” they chanted as the Lakers built a 73-58 halftime lead.

The good times wouldn’t last for the Lakers.

The Nuggets rallied smartly in the third quarter and held them off in the fourth.

“I think it starts with a belief in themselves, but probably more importantly in the collective, the man next to them,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “I’ve seen that belief all year long. We know that in the middle of December we ascended to first place in the Western Conference, and through the ups and downs, we never lost first place in the Western Conference.”

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