The Denver Nuggets came out guns blazing, then fell asleep at the wheel before recovering in the game’s final minutes and pull away from the Los Angeles Lakers 115-99. LeBron James scored 31 but his team couldn’t break a hundred, which just wasn’t enough after Denver’s 43-point first quarter created a deficit that even they couldn’t throw away this time.

The Nuggets won for the first time in four tries despite two and a half miserable quarters of play. Will Barton scored 23, most of it in the first half but some crucial late plays as well, and Gary Harris had 19 with a barrage coming in the fourth quarter to stuff the Los Angeles rally attempt. Jokic had 12 points, 17 rebounds and 8 assists but took just 5 shots and played on the perimeter much of the night, creating some issues for Denver when others faltered. Despite it all, though, Denver prevailed.

Will Barton opened the game with a straight-away three after some nice ball movement, then followed it with a corner three. JaVale McGee got the dunk for Los Angeles and Millsap butchered a fast break finish but Harris made the next one after LeBron’s missed free throws. McGee and Barton exchanged paint buckets, LeBron missed more free throws but buried two straight threes to tie the game at 10. Murray hit a three in response, then dropped in a runner to force Luke Walton into a timeout. Murray had another runner but a McGee dunk and Lance Stephenson three helped the Lakers close it back. 

The Nuggets attacked relentlessly in transition though and the Lakers had no answer. After tranisition finishes from Gary Harris and Murray as well as transition foul shots from Paul Millsap, another Barton three put Denver up 29-17 with more than four minutes to go in the quarter. Millsap and Plumlee flushed paint finishes while the Lakers made some threes but missed too many other opportunities. Malik Beasley hammered a dunk in the waning seconds to put Denver up 43-25 at the end of one, although this one would have been nice:

Isaiah Thomas put Denver up 20 with his layup, then hit a baseline runner. LeBron checked back in but couldn’t close down the lead against Denver’s bench. Back-to-back threes from Monte Morris and Beasley made it 53-31 Denver with 8 minutes to go in the half. LeBron James tied Michael Jordan at 4th on the All-Time Scoring list with his team down 18, then finished with the left in the paint on a three-point play to pass His Airness and immortalize Torrey Craig in the process. Denver’s offense got a bit disjointed as LA had a 9-0 run to close it to 55-42. Will Barton helped steady the ship but Los Angeles held Denver to just 23 points in the second. Denver still kept a 17 point lead at the half, 66-49.

The Nuggets found their hustle again to start the second half as Murray and Barton canned nice threes to start the half and build a 23 point lead. They pounded the glass as some shots didn’t fall but had trouble with the referees to the point that both Jokic and Millsap had arguments with them and Malone got a technical as the Lakers went on a 9-0 run. Denver responded but a botched transition alley oop from Murray to Harris didn’t help. Denver still had a 80-67 lead with four minutes to go in the quarter, and a Beasley three was countered by more errors and mistakes by Denver culminating in free throws by Josh Hart to close it to a 10 point deficit. Denver allowed a free throw barrage from the Lakers to close the third quarter while bricking everything down the stretch, and wound up leading by just 8 at 85-77.

The Lakers crowd woke up as LeBron came back in and Los Angeles cut the lead to four after a LeBron three point play. Jokic came back in with just over a minute gone to try to steady the ship. Millsap got a technical foul after cleaning up a jokic miss, and Jokic took a charge as they tried to spark something. The refs and the Nuggets had a third battle going and Denver couldn’t get a bucket until Gary Harris finally hit his first three for a miniscule 92-87 cushion.

Harris hit another on a beautiful sling-pass from under the basket, but Denver could not stop LA either. The fourth quarter really belonged to Harris, though, as he got a three point play by forcing a foul on Caruso then finished with a finger roll to put Denver back up 9 and get the Nuggets to 100 points. Barton’s block after his own turnover was a nice show of attitude and intensity. LeBron James had some nice finishes and terrible turnovers, but the Nuggets wouldn’t let the Lakers back in the game again. They finished on a 26-12 run for a 115-99 win.

Final Thoughts

The game was not quite as stress-free as it should have been against a non-playoff team with those injuries. In the end, Denver took care of business but I don’t know what sort of prognostications can be made from the victory. The Lakers were grossly outmanned, and played defense like there were punishments for stopping the ball. They made a couple of threes, airballed others, and fell asleep at multiple points against Denver. It should have been the kind of easy game you want to see from Denver when they outclass an opponent, but Jokic took just three recorded shots in his first three quarters on the court, and Denver’s first quarter enthusiasm where they recorded 43 points was followed by two quarters in which they scored a combined 42 to let the Lakers back in.

If Denver was looking to put a stamp on the game to say they were back and focused, they missed the mark. Sloppy play, poor finishing, getting beat on paint points by the undersized Lakers and winning the game by double digits simply because the Lakers couldn’t shoot free throws is ridiculous. Denver won, and that’s good, but there should be some soul-searching after four games of this.

Denver’s guard rotation showed why they should be feared – by both Denver fans and opponents. Will Barton had two quarters and a couple of minutes of great ball to start the game. Gary Harris slammed the door shut when the Lakers looked like they might actually steal this game in a travesty. But Harris was absent for most of the first three quarters, Barton evaporated until the final few minutes, and Jamal Murray took 20 shots to get his 19 points in a Kobe-esque performance.

Will Barton bringing the ball up early in the game looked good. Jamal Murray’s inability to throw a bounce pass to Jokic late did not. It was a mixed bag, but the talent is there and both Harris and Barton are looking much healthier. Health and rhythm are all Denver can ask for with its guards going forward, bench and starters. The bench once again struggled, scoring just 26 of Denver’s 115 points and being decidedly minus as a unit against the Lake-show, but that too is a matter of rhythm.

Denver won, so they can afford to be patient a little longer. Now it’s on to Golden State, who will be looking to make a statement against Denver – again.