It just wouldn't be right if Kobe Bryant didn't have a big game in his final match up with the Denver Nuggets but while he was able to do some damage, the Nuggets bench had major contributions from Jusuf Nurkic, Will Barton and D.J. Augustine to beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe would have twenty-eight points but all three of those members of Denver's bench found their way to double figures scoring and helped to distribute the ball on their way to a victory.
The game opened with a Kobe fade away in the post that fell well short. From there, Jordan Clarkson provided some outside shooting for the Lakers but otherwise neither team was converting at a particularly high rate on the offensive end, though did Mudiay get Denver's first points by Kobeing Kobe. After the Nuggets started 2-8 shooting and Clarkson opened 3-3 (all three point shots) they found themselves in an early hole but their offense picked up after a timeout. However, Clarkson and Kobe responded on the other end and the two teams traded baskets as the pace quickened. The Nuggets bench closed out the quarter after Gary Harris brought the team within three and they allowed Lou Wiliams to push the lead back to seven.
Williams opened the second quarter scoring for the Lakers but the Nuggets defense improved greatly behind Nurkic and they went on a quick 7-0 run. Nurkic was also contributing on offense as the Lakers tried to defend him with Brandon Bass which allowed him to muscle his way into the paint with ease. The entire bench caught fire after that and a 17-0 run captured and built the lead for the Nuggets. There was a scary moment where it looked like D'Angelo Russell sprained his ankle badly and he would not return to the game. After that the Nuggets kept converting on offense and closed out the half strong to gain a lead of twelve points.
Denver came out of the gate in the second half with energy whereas the Lakers looked sluggish but both teams struggled to score the basketball until around the eight minute mark when Kobe started knocking down threes while Mudiay was executing the pick and roll flawlessly. Nikola Jokic was taking his turn dominating the Lakers in the paint. However LA kept hanging around, largely on the back of Bryant. It seemed that every big moment the Nuggets had was responded to by a Kobe bucket and as the quarter started drawing to a close the Lakers bench gained some momentum back to get the Nuggets lead below double digits. The third would end with Denver leading by just six.
As had been the case with the other quarters, the final one opened with both teams having difficulty scoring until the dynamic bench trio of Nurkic, Will Barton and D.J. Augustine led a 17-4 run for the Nuggets which ended with a pretty passing sequence from Augustine to Nurkic to Joffrey Lauvergne. Once there was less than six minutes to play in the game everyone on the bench was finding their shooting touch and the Nuggets lead rose to twenty. The vintage Kobe from earlier turned into bad Kobe and the writing was on the wall. The Lakers would be unable to close the gap and Kobe was saddled with one last loss from the Nuggets.
Box score via ESPN.com
Best match up: Jordan Clarkson vs Nuggets two guards
Outside of Kobe, Clarkson was the best offensive player on the floor tonight for the Lakers. He opened the game hitting shots from deep and continued to be aggressive on offense throughout. On the Nuggets side though Harris and Barton combined for twenty-nine points with Harris opening the game strong and Barton finishing it. Clarkson is a free agent at the end of the season and he could be due a big pay day with his scoring ability and upside. The cap rules will prevent him from getting giant money because of how few years in the league he has but he'll definitely demand an eyebrow raising amount.
Thing I noticed: Wow, the bench is going to be really good
Nurkic is finally playing the way we all knew he could and D.J. Augustin has been a nice addition for Denver. However, it went beyond just those two and the always dynamic Barton tonight. Lauvergne nearly had a double double and Axel Toupane chipped in eight points as well. Add Wilson Chandler back into the mix next season along with a lottery pick and at least one other first rounder and this bench is going to be one of the best in the Association. Especially if they decide to keep Augustin (probably going to have to buy out Jameer Nelson) who has been a nice addition to this team.
Closing thought: Not going to miss playing Kobe
Kobe only logged twenty-nine points tonight and he only played twenty-two minutes. He had his three point jump shot working and also hit some of his classic fade always. I don't think there's much argument that he gets a little extra juice going when he plays the Nuggets. He's always been booed mercilessly in Denver and the fact of the matter is those boos are due to a subject that I'm sure he's sensitive about. The great player that he is, Kobe used that to fuel his performances against Denver and flashes of those great performances were still there tonight. I won't miss them.
Next up: at Los Angeles Clippers, Sunday 1:30PM MDT