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Recap: Nuggets pick up first loss of the season against Los Angeles Lakers

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Denver couldn’t stop LeBron, and starting lineup struggles emerge.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 121-114. LeBron James finished with 28 points and a triple-double. Nikola Jokic finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds but just three assists against six turnovers, a microcosm of how he was off tonight. Jamal Murray added 22 points and 10 rebounds but was harassed by Lonzo Ball all night, who picked up five steals to go with a solid all-around performance. Monte Morris had 20 points and seven assists off the bench in a nice showing as well.

The Nuggets opened the game with the Jamal Murray show, who went right at Lonzo Ball offensively like he had something to prove. His aggressiveness took Denver out of their offensive element briefly, but they got back to Jokic facilitating quickly, prompting a quick timeout from Los Angeles. The Lakers quickly recovered on the shoulders of rim attacks and kick outs by LeBron James; Denver did what they could to make things difficult on him by rotating as much as they could manage. Once James left the floor, Jokic soon followed on Denver’s side, and the benches trade blows for awhile before Denver led 26-22 after one quarter. Neither team could grab much of a rhythm offensively.

LeBron started the second quarter for the Lakers and helped them tie the game up at 29 apiece. Denver’s bench struck back though, as Trey Lyles started making better decisions as a scorer, driving to the rim, hitting his first three-pointer of the season to break an 0/9 skid, and passing the ball well. That came to an end though, as the Nuggets bench struggled to balance closing out on shooters and keeping drivers in front of them. When the starters returned, things improved briefly for Denver, with Jokic getting more aggressive looking for his own scoring and working JaVale McGee over in the post. Still, Denver struggled to surround Jokic with shooting, and with both Millsap and Craig on the floor, there’s very little spacing for the Nuggets to work with offensively. The Lakers continued to rely on LeBron getting to the rim and kicking out to shooters; they road that formula to a 58-57 lead at halftime.

There was some fun Nikola Jokic coverage at halftime too.

Jamal Murray opened the quarter gunning once again, and he created a number of quality shots for Denver, either by his own volition or setting up Jokic for spot up three-pointers. But the beginning of this third quarter was all about LeBron being unstoppable. The Nuggets couldn’t match with him off-the-dribble or in transition, and it led to easy baskets for the Lakers. Lonzo Ball did a nice job passing as well, and the Nuggets had no answers for LA’s motion attack.

Then Nikola Jokic took over offensively late in the third. His post game was extremely important for Denver, and they kept going to the well. Whether Jokic was matched up against Johnathan Williams, Kyle Kuzma, or McGee, Jokic went to work by scoring first and creating cutting lanes for easy scores. Malik Beasley, who sat out the first half, almost killed McGee as well, helping Denver lead Los Angeles 89-87 after three quarters.

The bench came out strong in the fourth quarter, led by Jamal Murray, who had a great dunk with the shot clock winding down.

Denver also continued to play stellar defense as well with Trey Lyles guarding LeBron James reasonably well. He also was a focal point offensively and even back cut the King for an And-1. Captained by Monte Morris, Denver’s bench settled down offensively, but back-to-back threes by Lance Stephenson kept the Lakers close.

Once LeBron came back in late in the fourth, the Lakers received a burst of energy. With LeBron and Kuzma operating as the bigs, the Lakers ran the Nuggets hard to end the game. Denver’s identity on offense fluctuated with the team indecisive on whether to run dribble hand-offs at the top or post-ups to Jokic, and it caused ineffectiveness, giving the Lakers run-outs on the other end. Denver couldn’t close the gap at the end.

What the Stiffs said to watch:

The bench

Denver’s bench scored 47 points tonight, led by Monte Morris, who had 20 by himself. The Iowa State product was efficient tonight and helped facilitate the rest of the actions with seven assists as well. Michael Malone has to like Morris limiting his turnovers as well. He had zero tonight.

Who can guard LeBron?

The answer turned out to be nobody (surprise). LeBron finished with 28 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds on 10/17 from the field. Millsap came closest, and Lyles had his moments, but the King is the King, and Denver’s lack of true wing defenders showed its ugly side against the best player in the world. When they went small, it was tough for Denver to match up.

Size vs Speed

Surprisingly, the pace of this game was reasonable at “just” a 105.7 pace. Some of that had to do with the Lakers being on the second night of a back-to-back, and some of it had to do with great pressure from Lonzo Ball on Jamal Murray. He bothered Murray throughout the game with his length and defensive instincts. Still, Denver was outmatched by the Lakers’ speed to close the game. LeBron and Kuzma playing down low gave the Nuggets issues late in the game, and discombobulated offense ruined any chance for Denver to come back.

Another thing that happened: Denver’s starters show weakness

It has been a problem for awhile, but the Nuggets starters cannot space the floor. Murray and Harris are threats from everywhere, while Jokic can score at all three levels, but the offense has struggled with Torrey Craig and Paul Millsap on the floor. Both add levels of defense some of Denver’s other starters can’t match, but the Lakers chose to simply not guard those two guys from the perimeter on most possessions. They didn’t shoot any threes in the second half, and that’s a legitimate issue when teams can load up on Denver’s other offensive options. Jokic had it going in the post tonight, but it hurts his spacing and effectiveness as the game wears on when he can’t fire off passes to his teammates and keep the defense honest. The Lakers were scared of Jokic in the post, and it showed in their collapses into the paint when he had the basketball.

This is a problem Denver must address going forward. It may involve a lineup change. I’ve advocated for Juancho Hernangomez to see more time with the starters, and it’s possible that Denver goes to that configuration if the combination of Millsap and Craig hinder Denver’s spacing offensively.