May 22, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Denver's full force is on display in Game 1 against the Lakers as their title defense begins with a win

Denver's full force is on display in Game 1 against the Lakers as their title defense begins with a win

It was close, until it wasn't.

The Lakers were ahead as well, leading 60-57 at halftime, thanks to a three-pointer from LeBron James before the buzzer, until the Nuggets' 20-4 run was broken by an 89-78 run at the end of three frames. Denver led Los Angeles by as many as 14 points in that momentum-packed third quarter, as former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sank four 3-pointers to cap several tic-tac-toe possessions for the reigning champions, eventually taking home the first game. Winning 114-103.

Denver's synergy and continuity were on full display, as its five-man lineup starring Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, with Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr., rounding things out, humming with such understanding it was as if they were finishing each other's sentences. They can play at their own pace and rhythm. They can coordinate wide-open looks with relative ease. When Jokic found Caldwell-Pope in the opposite corner, Gordon was already sliding in front of Anthony Davis to keep him out of the contest. When Jokic got a nice pocket pass from Murray, Gordon was already sliding from the baseline to jump for another layup. When the Nuggets start to turn around, Porter is ready to move on to the next triple.

“As the game went on, as the guys got more and more composed, I thought the third quarter was great, but I really thought the end of the second quarter would really come back and it allowed us to go the distance and have the big third quarter that we had,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

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Yes, the Lakers narrowed the gap to the Nuggets to just six points with six minutes left in the fourth. But Denver rescued this game from the jaws of doubt during the third quarter run and never looked back in the first game. The exclamation point in the final minutes of the contest, as Gordon Jokic passed the high post, and Jokic threw a high ball to Murray inbounds, reminded us how interchangeable these puzzle pieces can be in Denver. This may be the true strength of the entire Nuggets wired lineup.

The pick-and-roll of Jokic and Murray is unstoppable, and opposing coaches fear it is one of the most challenging duos to defend in basketball. However, the Nuggets can run their offense through Gordon. Caldwell-Pope and Porter both double as killer screens as far-flung floor spacers. All five starters saw more than 32 minutes. They could all have scored more. They only turned the ball over once all evening. The entire unit scrambles, everyone vulnerable to jumping a passing lane or knocking down someone's attempt in the paint.

“It's tough,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “The championship team will not defeat itself.”

DENVER, COLORADO - APRIL 20: Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) in the first quarter during the first round of the NBA playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Aaron Gordon drives to the basket against LeBron James in the first quarter of Game 1. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver's full strength seemed more apparent as James and Anthony Davis received minimal contributions from the Lakers' supporting cast. Despite a tough first half by James and Davis' 32 points and 14 rebounds, Los Angeles saw D'Angelo Russell shoot 1-of-9 from long range, Rui Hachimura total just seven points, and need Austin Reeves until the fourth quarter to produce any tangible result. impact. Gabe Vincent, who was acquired by the Lakers as a free agent, was injured for much of the regular season, committed three quick fouls while trying to guard Murray and will play just over seven minutes — one away from a victorious retaliation against a Nuggets team that upset Vincent's Miami Heat. In last year's Finals, Denver beat the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

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For the better part of two seasons, Denver has simply had a completeness that few teams can compare to — and that group may only include the East-leading Boston Celtics by the time this season is over. The Nuggets make sure to leave Jokic or Murray on the floor at all times. Jokic carried Denver's second unit at the end of the first quarter. Murray took command early in the fourth quarter while DeAndre Jordan, coming off Denver's bench, provided positive minutes just as he did during last year's playoff run.

The Nuggets play with inevitability, as a powerful run like a third-quarter turnover always lurks around the corner. Maybe Los Angeles has another look outside of guarding Jokic with a combination of Hachimura and then Davis. The Lakers' shooters are unlikely to bring that kind of extra spark over three more games. However, Denver seems to have no answer to any new problem. Malone's Nuggets have passed every test they've been put to for some time.