Two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic was in the house as was four-time MVP winner LeBron James. So was Russell Westbrook, a former MVP in his own right.
Naturally, it was reserve Lakers guard Austin Reaves who elicited “M-V-P” chants from the Lakers faithful Friday night.
Even as Anthony Davis sat the second half with a foot injury, the Lakers hammered the Nuggets, 126-108, snapping Denver’s three-game winning streak and exposing a defense that’s gashed and wounded.
The Nuggets fell to 17-11 on the season, unintentionally showcasing an undermanned Lakers team for the second time this season. Denver will attempt to re-group ahead of Sunday’s game vs. Charlotte, but fixing a defense this disconnected won’t happen overnight.
Here’s what mattered in Friday’s loss.
The defense: When the Lakers picked up their first win of the season this year back in October, it was because they rained 3-pointers down at an uncharacteristically high clip against Denver’s perimeter defense. Los Angeles entered Friday’s contest as the worst 3-point shooting team in the league at 32%. As such, Denver was well aware the Lakers intended to live in the paint; after the first quarter, they’d already racked up 22 points inside on Denver’s porous, leaky defense.
Entering halftime, the Nuggets had conceded at least 31 points in five of their previous six quarters. The defensive awareness was abysmal. In the third quarter, they limited the Lakers to 29, which qualified as a small victory. In the fourth, the Lakers pummeled Denver for 33.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s win over Washington, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was blunt in his assessment of the defense.
“You can win regular season games like that, but you’re not going to win a playoff series,” he said. “You’re not going to go deep in the playoffs if your recipe is to outscore teams.”
At some point, Malone said, their high-wire act would bite them.
They completely let go of the rope by the time the fourth quarter was over. The Lakers finished with 64 points in the paint, 28 fastbreak points and 18 second-chance points.
LeBron James flashed every bit of his 37-year-old athleticism as he soared, unimpeded, through the lane numerous times. When Davis didn’t return, reserve Thomas Bryant punished Denver’s unimposing interior. And if it wasn’t the Lakers’ muscle, then it was Reaves or Russell Westbrook torching Denver’s inconsistent second unit. The Lakers bench outscored Denver’s 58-23.
Speaking of the bench: Bones Hyland didn’t bring it on either end of the floor, finishing a game-worst -24. Christian Braun only played meaningful minutes in the first quarter before he was pulled in favor of Davon Reed, who defended well. Only Jeff Green offered reasonable production off the bench. Zeke Nnaji hasn’t played non-garbage minutes in four games, as Malone is still searching for consistency among his reserves.
As Michael Porter Jr. sat for his 11th consecutive game, Bruce Brown slotted in, again, with the starters. Brown’s a glue guy who could help galvanize the bench once Porter returns from his heel injury. Until then, it’s anyone’s guess how, or who, Denver’s bench will play.
Murray’s momentum: Jamal Murray hobbled off the court late in the fourth quarter after an apparent ankle tweak that didn’t appear serious. Most of his 23 points (8-for-16 shooting) came in the second half when the Nuggets made a concerted effort to get him going.
Just when Murray looked like he’d found something, scoring 51 points across two games this last week, he barely registered in Wednesday’s win over Washington. In the first half against the Lakers, he was quiet again and rarely hunting for his shot. He finished the first half with seven points, four assists and four turnovers. It’s the mistakes that are the most curious, as he trumpeted his assured and decisive play a few nights earlier.
Murray’s been staggering with the second unit in an effort to take some playmaking and scoring off of Hyland’s plate. But the result has often been a your-turn, my-turn type of approach rather than a cohesive offense. Granted, the starting unit revolves around an all-time playmaker, but the starting unit’s passing stands in stark contrast to the second unit.
When Hyland walks into a deep, uncontested 3-pointer, occasionally he’ll make it. But those shots completely undermine the offense, and when they miss, there’s a fair chance that the Nuggets will get beat back in transition. Not to mention, those shots are looks Hyland can get any time he wants. For Denver’s second unit to mesh, Hyland and Murray are going to have to co-exist.