A playoff-level game broke out in February, as the Denver Nuggets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 114-106 on the strength of three massive performances. Michael Porter Jr. came out hot and finished with 27 points, 8 rebounds and some great defensive plays matched only by his last-minute daggers. Nikola Jokic started slow but found his scoring touch in the second half and controlled the offense all game with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 9 assists. And Jamal Murray put in 29 points to go with 7 rebounds and 11 assists as he took what the Lakers gave him early when they double- and triple-teamed him, then went off scoring later to close the Crypt down on LA. Anthony Davis had a game-high 32 with 9 boards, 4 blocks and some great defense, and LeBron James kept his streak of 20+ point games alive with 25 / 9 / 7 but in the waning minutes, Denver’s stars showed why they should still be the favorites to represent the West in July.

Game Recap

Nikola Jokic won the tip and immediately he went to the rim but was denied by Davis. He missed again the next time down but an Aaron Gordon block led to a Jokic putback of an MPJ miss. Anthony Davis made a jumpshot, but Jokic made a behind-the-back pass to Justin Holiday and another assist to Murray for a layup made it 6-2. LeBron James missed a three and Jokic assisted a long MPJ two going the other way, and a steal by Murray on LeBron led to an AG dunk assist by MPJ. Max Christie hit a three to make it 10-5, but Murray drove back to score. Denver got wild with the ball, with a behind-the-back pass from MPJ going awry and a long pass to Jokic that got deflected, and the Lakers regained energy with rim scoring to cut it to 12-9.

MPJ answered with a dunk out of a timeout, and despite the Laker block on a Gordon layup, a push shot from porter made it 16-9 Denver. Anthony Davis finished at the rim in transition over smaller players as AG missed a couple of long shots. Porter blocked Christie, and buried another jumper on the other end. AD made a long jumper, but Jokic was looking for Porter and passed up a contested two for an open corner 3 and 21-13 Denver. Taurean Prince made a three for LA, Christian Braun made a great pass to Reggie Jackson for a layup, and Davis threw the ball to himself for a dunk that the refs missed the travel on. A blocked Murray shot led to a Christian Wood layup and a tie game before Braun’s corner 3 broke a 7-0 Lakers run and Peyton Watson’s 3 made it 29-23 after one.

Each team had a couple misses to start the second quarter until Taurean Prince finished a bucket through contact and made his free throw. Jackson Hayes and Jamal Murray exchanged buckets, and Christian Braun forced a jump ball on defense. LeBron made a bank shot however that Porter answered from deep, and then Porter had another block that turned into a DeAndre Jordan finish and a 36-30 Denver lead. Jamal Murray finished a transition bucket against LeBron, answered by LeBron inside, and Reggie Jackson buried a transition 3 to take the lead to 9. Taurean Prince hit another 3, Davis and Jokic exchanged layups, and Christie made a three and a free throw to cut Denver’s lead to 2. Jokic scored just his 6th point, Gordon made his second bucket, and Jamal Murray’s three made it 52-43 Denver. Los Angeles kept attacking every time Denver got some breathing room, but a Murray steal turned into a beautiful oop to Gordon for a dunk. Murray buried a three, Jokic hit a paint bucket and Denver went into halftime up 10, 59-49.

Murray opened the second half with a deep two, and then Porter had an outstanding circus finish through contact and finished a three-point play. LeBron made back-to-back threes but AG drove from the arc for a dunk the other way. Austin Reaves made a runner to cut Denver’s lead back to single-digits and Davis blocked Jokic from behind (with no call on the head contact), but Nikola then swished a three over Davis and Murray’s 3 made it 72-57 Denver.

Reaves hit a three and Davis finished at the rim, and Jokic’s block on Davis kept Denver’s lead in double digits until LeBron had a 3-point play to cut it to 74-67. Jokic finished around Davis through traffic, then buried a late-clock three. Davis made a bucket, Jokic finally got free throws, and after Davis free throws Jokic hit a beautiful hook over Davis to make it 83-73 Denver. AD answered for LA, Jokic was blocked from behind on a 3 by Prince, and LA scored the final 6 points of the quarter with a rash of late free throws to make it 83-79 Denver with one quarter to go.

MPJ missed from deep to open the final frame but Watson got the rebound and Murray hit a 30 footer. Murray survived a scary moment where he had his legs taken out from him on a foul, and then assisted a DeAndre Jordan finish. But the Lakers crashed the offensive glass and kept getting finishes inside. LeBron got to the line to cut it to one at 88-87, DeAndre got another inside putback, and then Jokic came back in and got free throws. Murray hit a fadeaway but the Lakers were going for drives and dunks at every opportunity to keep the Denver lead to just a bucket. Murray missed a pair of threes for Denver, and Anthony Davis dunked the other way to tie it at 94. MPJ answered with a corner three assisted by Jokic, Davis hit a baseline jumper, and Jokic’s hook shot made it 99-96 Denver. Davis got another slam the next time down, and after some interesting foul calls and turnovers the Lakers tied it at 100. Gordon nailed a baseline dunk, Watson dunked another off a Jokic assist, and Reaves and Murray traded three pointers to keep Denver up 3. Murray grabbed a defensive rebound and made the push shot finish, and MPJ naled a wide open 3. MPJ got a dunk to slam home another dagger and Denver closed out the win 114-106.

Final Thoughts:

– This game had playoff atmosphere and the finish delivered. The Lakers fought back from a double-digit deficit to tie the game halfway through the fourth. There were blocks and steals all over the place. The teams had to grind for finishes late though, and Denver’s clutch finishing ability showed itself again. Murray had a three and great rebound to a push shot, and he and Jokic traded assists down the stretch. MPJ hit both a dagger three AND a dagger dunk. Denver’s defense got stops. The Lakers were ready to take a victory in a game they never led, but Denver slammed the door shut like a championship squad should – reminiscent of last year’s playoff sweep honestly. L.A. showed heart, but as LeBron used to show other contenders sometimes heart just isn’t enough. Little things matter. Being able to make both the tough play and the right play matters. And right now, Denver is still the team that knows how to do that when the chips are down and they keep showing it.

Which means the Lakers can take another L on the way out.