It didn’t help that they were down three rotation players, but the Denver Nuggets ran out of gas tonight. Overtime heading into the All-Star Break never helps anyone, but it certainly didn’t help Denver. The Los Angeles Lakers won 120-116 tonight on the back of some star play from LeBron James and Anthony Davis and star calls to boot.

The Nuggets started with their regular starters while Will Barton recovers from injury and Paul Millsap is on his minute restriction. They started slow on both ends, but after two missed free throws by LeBron, Denver’s shooters got hot from the perimeter, including threes by Craig, Jokic, and Murray. The Lakers came back with some transition opportunities of their own, but Denver’s momentum offensively combined with some great contests on LeBron and Anthony Davis helped give the Nuggets a nice lead in the first quarter at 31-23.

Noah Vonleh received his first minutes of the season with the Nuggets and spent most of them guarding LeBron James. it was an interesting decision from Malone but one that definitely paid off, as James settled for jumpers and Vonleh hit a corner three, his first points as a Nugget. Between his strong minutes, versatile play by Jordan McRae and PJ Dozier, and threes by Paul Millsap and Monte Morris, the Nuggets were absolutely balling to start the second quarter.

Unfortunately, that didn’t last. The Lakers went on an extended run based on dominant interior play from Davis and Dwight Howard. Eventually, LeBron also got it going, even when the Nuggets slid Jerami Grant onto him. Jokic seemed to be the only Nugget who had it going in the starting group, and several terrible decisions helped the Lakers take a six point lead going into halftime, 61-55.

If the Nuggets were going to get back into this one, it would have to involve great outside shooting. Lucky for Denver, Grant and Jokic each hit three-pointers while Murray did some nice work off the dribble. Unfortunately, Denver ran into some questionable foul trouble in the middle of the third quarter that sent Jokic to the bench with four fouls. The Nuggets needed guys to step up, and both Grant and Murray made some tough buckets to help Denver preserve the lead at 87-84 through three quarters.

The fourth quarter began as a fouling fest, with both teams drawing fouls on each other at a rate that was basically infinity. It culminated in James drawing an And-1 on Torrey Craig that Michael Malone challenged and lost. The Nuggets then bought some time for Jokic to return without putting him in too much danger of fouling out. Denver ended up down by three with 7:30 left. LeBron left the floor at the same time, and the Nuggets went on a sizable run. LeBron eventually came back in, but the Nuggets kept the pedal down offensively, led by Murray and Jokic two-man game.

Unfortunately, the referees had a little something to say about that. 50-50 calls continually went LA’s way, and it frustrated the hell out of Nikola Jokic. He made some questionable decisions because of it and allowed the Lakers back into the game. Fortunately for Denver, Jokic remains an elite passer. He had two assists in the final minute for layups, including a TOUGH shot by Gary Harris to tie the game. At the buzzer, LeBron’s midrange jumper rimmed out, and it went to overtime tied at 111.

The Nuggets and Lakers were both exhausted and probably had no desire to play an overtime period, but that didn’t stop them from hustling. Jamal Murray was once again good, but Denver’s scorers barely had anything left in the period. Two Anthony Davis three-pointers were killers, and Denver trailed by three with 40 seconds left. Unfortunately, Denver couldn’t get it done late with Jokic having some late miscues.

Three things to watch for

Size mismatches were prevalent throughout this game. Dwight Howard was an absolute load in the paint on both sides. He finished with 11 rebounds, 5 on offense and 6 on defense. Anthony Davis and LeBron James are walking mismatches at the forward positions already, so that wasn’t a surprise. Denver briefly went to a lineup that featured Grant, Millsap, AND Jokic late in the second quarter, but to no avail.

Jokic’s post game wasn’t a major part of this one until the second half. Jokic had been effective as a roll man in the pick and roll, but Denver couldn’t go to that in every moment. Jokic mostly used the post when he had mismatches, but when LeBron James switched onto him late, Jokic struggled to get anything going toward the basket. He was clearly gassed, and the refs didn’t help anything, but he has to be better in late game situations versus Davis and LeBron if the Nuggets are to have a chance against the Lakers in a series.

Murray offensively versus Avery Bradley defensively wasn’t a factor in the first quarter but became more important in the second. Bradley (as well as the length of Davis and Howard) bothered Murray a bit while attacking the basket. Still, Murray is having his star moment these last five games, finishing 32 points and 10 assists on 13/25 from the field. Just two turnovers was also a plus.

Final Takeaway

I’m glad the Nuggets get to rest up this next week. They need it badly. A full strength Nuggets squad takes down the Lakers tonight, and Michael Porter Jr. would have dusted Kyle Kuzma.

Oh, and the referees.