Lakers vs. Nuggets: LeBron James orchestrates, Anthony Davis dominates as Denver is overwhelmed in Game 1
At this point, counting the Denver Nuggets out of a series is just foolish. So we're not going to do that here. But certainly, we can all agree that in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the Los Angeles Lakers made the Nuggets look like the cute little underdog they were supposed to be until they uprooted the Clippers and demanded we take them seriously.
The Lakers were just too big. Too strong. Too good. They won 126-114 and it never really felt like a game after an impressive first quarter from Denver. From there, Nikola Jokic got into foul trouble, Jamal Murray followed, and though somehow the Nuggets managed the deficit enough to stay within 11 at halftime with both those guys on the bench, you just kind of knew this one was over despite Denver's proven propensity for wild comebacks.
Anthony Davis was spectacular, finishing with 37 points in just 30 minutes. He added 10 boards and shot 12 of 21 from the field. He got to the free throw line 15 times, sinking 12 of them. The Lakers paraded to the charity stripe 25 times in the second quarter alone. It will be talked about as a one-sided officiating night, and there were some suspect calls, particular one that sent Jokic to the bench in the first half, but for the most part, the Lakers earned their 37 free throws -- a number that likely would've been much higher had the Lakers' stars actually had to play in the fourth quarter -- by being the aggressor. That's what happens when a team can't guard you. When you're either too big or too good or a dizzying combination of both. They have to foul you.
Frank Vogel indeed went big to start the game, starting JaVale McGee alongside Davis, a throwback to the Lakers' preferred style after being forced into a smaller version of themselves against the Rockets. But it wasn't McGee who wound up pounding Denver as the second big. It was Dwight Howard, who was tremendous on both ends of the court. He played so physically. He occupied space in the defensive paint. Protected the basket. Furthered Jokic's foul trouble. He hit the boards. He caught lob dunks, finishing 4 of 5 from the field and, perhaps more impressive, 5-of-8 from the free throw line for 13 unexpected points.
Speaking of unexpected: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris combined for 35 points on 13-for-21 shooting. KCP and Morris went 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. Throw in another vintage performance from Playoff Rondo, who was conducting offense and dropping dimes en route to passing Michael Jordan for 10th on the all-time playoff assist list, and that's how we can go this long without having to mention LeBron James, who finished with 15 points on 11 shots. He added 12 assists and six boards for good measure.
LeBron and Rondo both dictated pace beautifully in this game, and Denver was not able too keep the Lakers out of transition nearly enough. LeBron hit them with three-quarter-court passes before the defense could get back. The Lakers streaked for easy buckets even after made baskets. Even in the half-court, the Lakers were decisive and urgent, a step in front all night.
Denver turned the ball over way too much in the early going, which, combined with the foul trouble, set the wrong tone for a game that was just waiting to move out of reach. Jokic was effective before the foul trouble, finding cutters from the low post in his normal wizardry fashion despite the Lakers combatting him with more size than the Clippers had to offer. Jokic and Murray, who was able to get to the rim and knock down threes with encouraging ease, both finished with 21 points. It's something to build on.
Again, we're not going to get too ahead of ourselves here. This is one game. The Lakers looked better from the top down, and it was certainly a nice reversal from their first two series in which they dropped both Game 1s, but the Nuggets have earned our hesitance to count them out. Keep Jokic out of foul trouble, get Murray cooking, and perhaps that gets the whole Denver train moving in Game 2. But for now, the Lakers just look like too much.