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LeBron-less Lakers see win streak end with road loss to Nuggets

DENVER — Technically, the game was within five points. And yet even in the third quarter, the Denver Nuggets weren’t just a mile high – they were a mile ahead of the Lakers.

The facade of a close game melted away within minutes, as the Nuggets ripped off a lightning rally: a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope jumper, two Bruce Brown 3-pointers and one of Nikola Jokic’s lazy, wrist-flicking shots from midrange that always seems to find its target. The two-time league MVP was hardly looking to score: He only took five shot attempts the entire night, making all of them to that point while racking up assists against little resistance.

Meanwhile, the Lakers (19-22) – winners of five straight games going into Monday night – skidded into their own limitations, brought about by injuries and old habits. Their best stretch of the season so far crashed all at once in the 122-109 loss to Western Conference leaders, who won their 11th consecutive home game.

On paper, none of this was a surprise: The Lakers were without LeBron James, who had scored 25 or more points in his last 13 appearances and was named conference player of the week on Monday after the Lakers had gone 4-0. Added to other injuries, most pressingly Anthony Davis, there was never really a hint of a chance against Jokic and the Nuggets (27-13).

“Hopefully we’ll get some bodies back,” Coach Darvin Ham said, quickly looking ahead to two off days. “And we’ll just start that process of filling our cups and get ready to get back after it.”

Whereas the Lakers found a way to win last week against Miami without James in the lineup, on Monday their role players – stellar throughout the streak – fell back to Earth.

Russell Westbrook (25 points) missed his first eight shots of the night, while Dennis Schröder was cold, going just 3 for 13 from the field (though he was 8 for 8 from the free-throw line). Thomas Bryant managed 17 points and 10 rebounds, but he was flustered offensively – going just 6 for 14 – and he had little answer on defense for Jokic’s triple-double effort (14 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds).

It evened the season series, 2-2, between teams that battled not long ago in the 2020 Western Conference finals. The Lakers had proven a match for Denver earlier this season, weathering losing Davis on Dec. 16 but still winning in L.A. But without Davis or James, and with injuries forcing them to start one rookie and dole out significant minutes to another, it was hopeless to present the game as any kind of measuring stick.

But it did offer perspective on the narrow margins for the Lakers, who were missing five significant role players and lost a sixth, Patrick Beverley, when he slipped and fell on his hip in the first half. During their win streak, they played close games with three wins over teams with losing records. In the coming week against Dallas and Philadelphia, they’ll need stronger stuff – and James back in the lineup.

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With the loss, the Lakers missed the chance to move up into play-in position (top 10 in the conference) for the first time since their 0-5 start.

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The game started getting away midway through the first quarter, as turnovers (14 Lakers giveaways for 23 Denver points) piled up and shots were clanging. Jamal Murray got cooking in the second quarter and would eventually shut the door in the second half, finishing with a game-high 34 points.

The Lakers were led by Westbrook, who was hampered by a dislocated pinky finger in the first half and said he had to reset the digit twice. He was 9 for 12 in the second half to create the impression that the finish might be a close affair. But he never got a handle on turnovers, finishing with seven to match his assists.

Bryant and Schröder had their worst shooting games in weeks, and Kendrick Nunn was the third-leading scorer with 15 points.

Rookie Max Christie made his first career start for James, scoring 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting in 26 minutes. The Lakers also gave two-way contract player Cole Swider significant minutes, and the Syracuse product wound up with six points, five rebounds and three assists.

But the Lakers didn’t look at their injury situation as an excuse: “I have faith in everybody in this locker room, regardless of who’s in, who’s out,” Westbrook said. “Always have a chance to win.”

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