Jamal Murray raised his arms in relief. His fourth-quarter 3-pointer both snapped his cold streak and helped put the game on ice.
Murray and the Nuggets salted away a satisfying win Wednesday night, knocking off the Lakers, 110-99, to help erase the sting of Monday’s pounding in Portland. Now 3-2 on the season, Denver will look to avenge their opening-night loss to Utah on Friday.
There was nothing LeBron James or Anthony Davis could do as Denver committed defensively in the second half, and the MVP did what he typically does. Nikola Jokic, whose Sombor Shuffle over Davis effectively ended the drama with 3:19 left, ended the night with 31 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.
“Nobody can guard him,” said Nuggets guard Bruce Brown. “It’s just that simple.”
Without Michael Porter Jr., who missed the game due to lumbar spine management, the Nuggets used Brown in as many ways as they could conceive. He finished with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists.
“That’s just a typical Bruce Brown night,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who praised his versatility in starting at multiple positions and coming off the bench while playing even more.
His energy, along with rookie Christian Braun, helped spark the bounceback defensive game.
The Lakers remained winless, falling to 0-4 on the season. Davis’ 22 points and 14 rebounds were both team-highs for Los Angeles.
Whatever the message was at halftime, it landed. The Nuggets suffocated the Lakers for just 17 points in the third quarter and blitzed them offensively with 32. Minutes into the third quarter, Jokic caught a pass from Murray, slipped through the lane and delivered one of his more powerful jams in years. It loosened up the offense for both stars. When the Lakers sent a double-team at Jokic, he promptly flipped it to Aaron Gordon for a dunk.
Murray found his stride, too, carving up Los Angeles’ defense with fearless floaters and timely looks to his teammates. It was only a flash, but there was no hesitation in Murray’s approach.
Their strong defensive work earned them a comfortable 86-71 lead going into the fourth.
After an embarrassing performance in Portland earlier in the week, Michael Malone was adamant that auditing their defense began on the offensive end.
“The reason I say that is because the offense is the beginning of our defense, and we’re dead last right now – we’re giving up over 23 points a night off our turnovers,” said Malone, who allowed there was some concern but no panic at this point. “So our offense is fueling the other teams’ break.”
After that, the onus was on the players to guard their matchups.
“Our one-on-one defense is terrible at this point,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said from shootaround on Wednesday. Caldwell-Pope was in the middle of another productive game before he exited in the third quarter with a left ankle sprain.
As Malone aptly put it, the pressure was on the point-of-attack defenders since, “We don’t have Dikembe Mutombo.”
The Nuggets had chances to create separation in the first half but couldn’t capitalize from the 3-point and failed to tighten a defense that’d been leaking since the start of the season. Denver shot just 5-of-21 from 3-point range over the first two quarters, and four of the makes came from Brown.
It was another example of how the Nuggets missed Porter’s presence from the perimeter. Denver entered halftime tied at 54.
From a scoring standpoint, Davis was the most impactful for the Lakers. He registered 16 in the first half, primarily going up against Jokic. James, as he’s been throughout his career, was content to play facilitator with seven assists early.
Brown paced the Nuggets with 16 points, and Jokic, playing more aggressive than he did against Portland, added 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists going into the break.
In his long road back to normalcy, Murray still didn’t appear comfortable. He forced his offense on several occasions and dropped his head while failing to connect on a 3-pointer in the first half.