LOS ANGELES – Mocked and panned for their inability to shoot from distance, the Los Angeles Lakers found their stroke Sunday evening.
It came at the expense of the undermanned Nuggets, who fell 121-110, snapping their own two-game winning streak and handing the Lakers their first win of the season.
LeBron James connected on two of the Lakers’ 13 3-pointers, leading Los Angeles with 26 points. His counterpart, Anthony Davis, poured in 23 with 15 rebounds. Even much-maligned star Russell Westbrook came off the bench, bludgeoning his matchups for 18 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
“We let guys get comfortable,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
While good by his standards, Nikola Jokic was hardly the dominant force he had been when the Nuggets knocked off the Lakers earlier in the week. Jokic managed 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting, 14 rebounds and six assists.
The Nuggets were partially undone after backup point guard Bones Hyland was ruled out just before tip with a hip strain suffered during warmups. It limited the playmaking off Denver’s bench, mandating Bruce Brown be the team’s primary facilitator off the bench. It didn’t help that reserve guard Ish Smith suffered a calf strain midway through the game, further limiting their point guard depth.
“We definitely missed Bones tonight,” Malone added.
Los Angeles’ reserves outscored Denver’s 41-22, the pivotal stat of the game.
Jamal Murray scored 21 points in 31 minutes, while Michael Porter Jr. added 17. The Nuggets’ 6-foot-10 3-point sniper was only 3-of-10 from outside.
The Nuggets ratcheted up their intensity to start the third quarter, working the ball inside and out to establish an 83-75 lead. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returned from his ankle sprain and buried three 3-pointers in the quarter. Aaron Gordon connected on two as well, and even Murray began to find his offensive flow. But once the starters exited, the Lakers began chipping away at their margin.
James began the quarter attacking Murray and Porter, and the Lakers’ reserves finished it with a flurry. Their 38-point effort in the third gave the Lakers a 93-85 lead entering the fourth.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone said his team was well aware of the Lakers’ struggles so far this season but that they also still needed to continue honing their own identity.
“We make them aware that obviously that they have not won a game yet, and to expect a hungry team,” Malone said. “Hopefully we have that same sense of urgency.”
Stopping them, Malone said, began in transition.
“They’re running off makes and misses,” he said.
The Nuggets authored a sloppy first half with blown layups and botched chances, and the Lakers’ insistence at driving the paint earned them a 55-51 lead at the break. One of the points of emphasis entering Sunday was protecting the lane from Davis, James and Westbrook, all three of whom were capable of punishing defenders with their speed.
Los Angeles’ 28 points inside exposed a defense that got beat way too often over the first two quarters.
Porter paced the Nuggets with 12 points, and Jokic had 11 to go along with 10 rebounds, but Murray continued to struggle with his touch, registering only six points on 3-of-9 shooting early.
Without Hyland, the second unit struggled to initiate offense and find its cohesion. That kept the pressure on Denver’s starters to produce.