DENVER (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers are taking solace in their big second-half comeback that fell just short in the Western Conference finals opener at Denver.
They aren’t alone — the Denver Nuggets also feel L.A.’s furious rally held takeaways for them heading into Game 2 on Thursday night at Ball Arena.
“I told our guys this is the best possible situation we could be in,” Denver coach Michael Malone said Wednesday. “We won Game 1, so we’re up 1-0. But there’s so many things that we can clean up.”
Film study wasn’t much fun for either team Wednesday.
The Lakers scored 72 second-half points on 67% shooting from the field and 90% from the free throw line while holding the Nuggets to one fast-break bucket and finally slowing down Nikola Jokic in the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t enough to overcome the big deficit or Jokic’s big night as the Nuggets held on 132-126.
Los Angeles big man Anthony Davis said the second-half turnaround has the seventh-seeded Lakers hopeful they can still wrestle the homecourt advantage from top-seeded Denver just like they did against Memphis and Golden State in these playoffs.
“Oh, yeah. We know what put us in that hole: no transition, rebounding,” Davis said. “They’re a physical, hard-playing team. They were very comfortable doing whatever they wanted. In the second half we just imposed our will, especially in that fourth quarter, playing Laker basketball. We were able to cut the lead.”
The Lakers were behind 21 points when they started playing and they could not overcome the deficit.
Not only did Denver’s defense disappear after halftime but Lakers coach Darvin Ham found a way to slow down Jokic. He put Rui Hachimura on the Nuggets star in the fourth quarter which allowed Davis to roam the rim.
A two-time NBA MVP, Jokic was unstoppable in the opening two quarters. He joined Kevin Garnett as the only players in the last 25 years with 15 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a half. But in the fourth quarter, he was held without a basket and was limited to three points and a pair of assists.
“Much is being made of them putting Rui Hachimura on Nikola Jokic, like we’ve never seen that before,” Malone scoffed, noting that the strategy made for “an interesting storyline” because it kept D’Angelo Russell, who’s been playing really well, on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
Ham said he’ll keep throwing different looks and big bodies at Jokic, who has six triple-doubles in these playoffs, including 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists Tuesday night despite his quiet fourth quarter.
“We’re definitely going to mix up the matchups some and throw different pitches at him in terms of coverages and see where we land,” Ham said.
Malone may have been grumpy about the Nuggets letting up after taking a 93-72 lead, but the morning also brought a sunnier mood because his players weren’t brimming with cockiness from a blowout. They were laser focused from the close call.
“It’s like a perfect storm,” Malone said, noting that the national buzz Wednesday seemed all about the Lakers having left Ball Arena convinced they’d found their edge in this series.
“I’d bet you every red cent I have that Darvin Ham would rather be up 1-0 than down 1-0,” Malone said. “So, for us to be able to watch film after a win and show all the things that we did poorly is a great situation to be in. We have a lot to improve upon, and tomorrow night is another opportunity for us to do that.”
The Lakers’ lesson was more about the slow start than the furious finish.
“It’s the Western Conference finals — you can’t ease into games,” Davis said. “Even though they say, ‘Oh, Game 1 is a feel-out game’ and everything like that, you never want to ease into the game, especially at this point in the season.”
LeBron James, for one, didn’t feel good about the Lakers making a game of it only to come up short anyway.
“In postseason it doesn’t matter if you cut it to one or you’re down 20, if you lose, you lose,” James said. “They are 1-and-0 and we have to come back with desperation going into Game 2. ... We need to be better in all facets of the game.”
From start to finish.