Jokic leads Nuggets to win over Lakers in Game 1

Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic (15) dunks against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, back, during the second half in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Saturday, April 20, 2024, in Denver. (Jack Dempsey/AP Photo)

DENVER (AP) — Unlike their crowd that drowned out the Los Angeles Lakers‘ pregame introductions, the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets were a little late to the playoff party Saturday night.

They turned up their offence and defence after a sputtering start, however, powering past the Lakers 114-103 behind Nikola Jokic’s 32 points and 12 rebounds in the Western Conference playoff opener, their ninth consecutive triumph over the Lakers.

After watching LeBron James score 19 first-half points, capped by a pull-up 3 from 32 feet in the final second that put the Lakers up 60-57, the Nuggets limited the NBA’s career scoring leader to nine points in the second half and didn’t allow him to even take a shot in the fourth quarter until just 1:20 remained.

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“We’re not going anywhere,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “This is the playoffs. No team in the playoffs, if you get down 12 early, you’re not going to just take your ball and go home. We still have plenty of fight left in us and we know that we were better than what we were playing early.

“That’s a good team over there. They came into the playoffs playing extremely well, and they showed it. LeBron was on course, I thought he’s about to have 50 points tonight, the way he was playing and shooting the ball.”

James finished with 27 points and Anthony Davis had 32.

That wasn’t nearly enough to match the reigning champs’ prowess.

Two other Nuggets matched Jokic’s double-double — Jamal Murray (22 points, 10 assists) and Anthony Gordon (12 points, 11 rebounds) — and Michael Porter Jr. came close with 19 points and eight boards.

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Denver handed James just his fourth loss in 17 first-round openers, but Malone said, “We’ve got to watch the film to see what we can do better. This is going to be a hell of a series.”

The Lakers haven’t beaten the Nuggets since Dec. 16, 2022. They’ll try again Monday night in Game 2 at Ball Arena, where Denver is now 34-8 this season.

Lakers coach Darvin Ham concurred with Malone’s sentiment about a competitive series, saying, “Everybody’s going to lose their mind over one game, and give them their credit, they held serve at home. They’re a tough home team, tough to beat in general, but they’re really good at home. … (But) we did a lot of good things out there tonight.”

Denver just did more things better.

The Nuggets had 15 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points, 10 more than the Lakers, who grabbed just six offensive boards. And the Nuggets committed just four turnovers — just one by their starters — while the Lakers turned the ball over a dozen times, including a whopping seven by James.

“I thought we played some good ball tonight, just could have been better,” James said. “You don’t have much room for error versus Denver’s team, especially at their home floor. They’re just a team that’s been through everything. Obviously, they’re the defending champions, so you gotta execute, you gotta make shots, you gotta defend. And then you can’t give them extra possessions.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored all 12 of his points after halftime, made a trio of 3-pointers in a 13-0 run the Nuggets used to seize control in the third quarter at 89-74.

Porter excelled on the court, as coach Malone predicted he would, after a trying week for his family that saw one younger brother, Coban Porter, sentenced to six years in jail for a fatal drunken driving crash on Friday and another, former Toronto Raptors guard Jontay Porter, banned from the NBA for betting on basketball and disclosing confidential information to other bettors.

“I think I definitely tried to compartmentalize,” Porter said. “Some bad and sad stuff happened to a couple of my brothers, but I got 15, 16 more brothers in here. So I knew I had to be here for them and come in here and do my job.”

The Nuggets entered these playoffs with bull’s-eyes on their backs but supremely confident of their chances to repeat after tying a franchise record with 57 regular season wins, four more than last year.

One sign of their looseness: Jokic, who’s starring in a teaser for “Despicable Me 4” where he seeks therapy because the Minions think he’s their boss, arrived at Ball Arena decked out in a black-and-gray striped scarf and gray pants, looking like Felonius Gru — the lead character from the movie franchise.

James should have shown up dressed like Vector because he played the perfect villain, at least until halftime.

Denver swept the Lakers in last season’s Western Conference finals, the next-to-last step the Nuggets had to clear before claiming their first NBA title.

“I don’t ever get into the ‘here we go again’ mindset,” James said. “One game, they protected their home court. We have another opportunity on Monday to come back and be better. We know how challenging it’s going to be. We know how difficult this opponent is and how great they are.

“You start doubting? I don’t get into the doubting mindset. I’m the wrong guy to ask.”

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