The Denver Nuggets looked to close out their first round series with the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night. The script of the first four games seemed to play out once again with the Lakers getting an early lead before Denver battled back. It was a battle of attrition while the Nuggets and Lakers both had key players going back to the locker room with injuries that they then battled through to finish the game. Like most games between these teams, this one was a tight matchup and much like game two came right down to the final moments. It was once again Jamal Murray with the heroics as he provided the game winning bucket with just a few seconds left on the clock. Nikola Jokic had another monster stat line and Michael Porter Jr. continued his strong play while the Lakers got good performances from their stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis but ultimately didn’t have enough. The Nuggets win on the backs of their big three 108-106 and move on to play the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Denver started a bit sloppy on offense but Murray made a couple shots and L.A. wasn’t burning down the nets either. Denver’s poor play continued as Austin Reaves led an 8-0 Lakers run while the Nuggets continued to turn the ball over. Denver stopped the run and worked their way back to a tie around the midway point of the quarter but Kentavious Caldwell-Pope turned his ankle and limped back to the locker room. Murray continued to be the source of Denver’s offense but the Lakers were winning the battle on the glass which got them several second chance points in addition to continuing to generate points off turnovers. They also played an incredibly clean quarter according to some (see: the refs) and didn’t commit a single foul until the final minute. However, in a change from the previous four games, Denver was knocking down their three pointers. Reggie Jackson hid a mid-range step back right before the buzzer and gave the Nuggets a 28-24 lead after one.

Jokic started the second quarter on the bench but Denver continued to generate points with their three point shooting. The Lakers responded through LeBron and eventually regained the lead on an and-1. The good news for Denver was KCP came back into the game but the bad news was the Nuggets continued to turn the ball over while Davis scored at will. The Nuggets started to settle things down with their starters back in the game but Caldwell-Pope was clearly not 100% (he left for the locker room once again before halftime) and their offense was stagnant with Murray getting a rest. The Lakers started building a lead once again and Malone got Murray back into the game. Unfortunately he had cooled off and L.A. stayed in front. The Nuggets finally put together a run with a strong close to the half and that left them heading to the locker room trailing 53-50.

There was a scary moment to open the second half when Porter Jr. bumped shoulders with Davis and AD immediately fell to the floor clutching his shoulder. After a timeout he was able to stay in the game but was noticeably hampered. The Lakers opened the half with a 5-0 run to build the lead back up. The Nuggets couldn’t find any consistency so they’d make a mini-run to get within a couple baskets before having another series of mental lapses like silly turnovers or broken defensive rotations and let L.A. push their advantage back up near double digits. That continued to be the story with Denver’s offense still sluggish. Jokic was essentially the only one scoring for Denver which was just enough to keep them within striking distance. They started to recapture some momentum with the quarter winding down and Porter joining Jokic in the scoring. That duo along with some refocused defense worked Denver all the way back into the lead with a 14-2 run. To make things worse for the Lakers, Davis headed back to the locker room with just under three minutes left in the quarter. LeBron kept the pressure on but without Davis it was a one man show on offense for L.A. and no answer for Nikola on the other end. A big lead was there for the taking in the closing minutes but Denver still had miscues and headed into the fourth up just 81-79.

Davis was back on the floor to start the fourth while Nikola rested. The Lakers didn’t have much offense but did get three straight possessions that resulted in free throws. Denver held on to their lead but they were struggling once again to find consistent offense. The Lakers got on an 8-0 run and took the lead before Denver finally stopped the bleeding. The Nuggets just couldn’t find any consistency though. They’d get a big shot from Porter or a nice play from Jokic and then immediately give up an offensive rebound or have a bad turnover after that. They kept fighting though, Murray started attacking the basket, including a big jam in LeBron’s face, but on the Lakers side Reaves was starting to make shots again. The game was tied going down the stretch. Davis clearly fouled Jokic with three minutes left but the Lakers challenged and since LeBron had complained about the replay center earlier in the series the refs felt obligated to give him the call. Jokic brushed it off and started to assert himself offensively trying to close out the game and series. Darvin Ham meanwhile burned through all the Lakers timeouts and left his players to figure it out on their own down two in the final minute. LeBron got another foul call to bring the free throw differential to +18 Lakers and he tied the game with under thirty seconds to go. Murray decided enough was enough and ripped the hearts out of the Lakers once again. He dribbled down the court, went to his left and buried a mid-range leaner with three seconds to go. With no timeouts the Lakers could do nothing but a Taurean Prince heave the ball from half court which never had a chance. Denver closes out the game 108-106 and wins the series four games to one.

Best matchup: Michael Porter Jr. vs Austin Reaves

Apr 29, 2024; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (1) attempts a shot as Los Angeles Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell (1) defends in the first quarter during game five of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It was the third options tonight that were the difference makers for each team. D’Angelo Russell didn’t have an efficient night shooting but Reaves was able to lift L.A.’s backcourt with his performance. He ends the night with nineteen points on eleven shots and consistently was the player to fill the gaps when LeBron and AD weren’t getting buckets. Speaking of getting buckets while the big stars aren’t, that was the role Porter played all series long and tonight was no different. Mike was nothing short of spectacular in this series and tallied twenty-six points on just twelve shots tonight. Jokic, given his gaudy stat line, would obviously get a ton of consideration if there was a series MVP award but there’s a strong argument that the most important player in this series for Denver was MPJ. He was a consistent steadying force on offense and used his length on defense to hold his own whether he was iso’d against Lebron on the wing or going one on one with Davis in the post. After struggling a bit in last year’s run it’s great to see Porter playing such a huge part of the Nuggets wins early in the postseason.

Luckily Denver will get some rest

Even though both the Nuggets and Timberwolves wrapped up their playoff series quickly (as well as the Oklahoma City Thunder), the second round won’t get started until the weekend. The rest couldn’t come at a better time for Denver who are watching their backcourt pile up the injuries. Murray put up an epic performance when you consider he was clearly not 100% with multiple leg issues while KCP looked like every jump brought him significant pain to his ankle. Oh by the way, Jackson is also just two games removed from an ankle tweak. None of these guys are going to heal overnight or even over a few days but it will allow them to get as much treatment as possible and hopefully Denver can be somewhere near healthy come the start of the Minnesota series.

Jokic’s turnovers cost The Thing to Bet

Jokic ended up just an assist shy of cashing the over on 9.5 assists tonight and he should have cleared it easily if not for all the turnovers (he had seven total). Joker missed guys on outlet passes more than once and just wasn’t his sharpest throughout the game. Just goes to show his greatness as even when not at his best he still puts in a twenty-five point, twenty rebound, nine assist night.