Denver's full force was felt in Game 1 against the Lakers as title defense begins with a win

It was close, until it wasn’t.

The Lakers were even leading, up 60-57 at halftime, thanks to a logo triple from LeBron James before the buzzer, until a 20-4 Nuggets run broke open an 89-78 advantage at the end of three frames. Denver led Los Angeles by as many as 14 in that momentum-swinging third quarter, as former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope splashed four 3-pointers to cap several tic-tac-toe possessions for the reigning champions, and eventually took home the Game 1 win, 114-103.

Denver’s synergy and continuity were on full display, its five-man lineup starring Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, with Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. rounding out matters, whirring with such understanding it was like they finished each other’s sentences. They can play at their own pace and their own tempo. They can orchestrate wide-open looks with relative ease. When Jokić finds Caldwell-Pope in the opposite corner, Gordon is already sliding in front of Anthony Davis to screen him away from a contest. When Jokić catches a nifty pocket pass from Murray, Gordon is already sliding baseline to leap for another lob. Whenever the Nuggets burst into transition, Porter is ready to relocate for a trailing triple.

“As the game went along, as the guys got more and more locked in, I thought that third quarter was great,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, “but I really thought the end of the second quarter, to really get back in it, that allowed us to get in striking distance and have that big third quarter that we had.”

Yes, the Lakers trimmed the Nuggets’ lead to just six points with six minutes to play in the fourth. But Denver wrestled this game from the jaws of doubt during that third-quarter sprint and never truly looked back in Game 1. The exclamation point in the contest's final minutes, where Gordon fed Jokić at the high post, and Jokić tossed a lob to Murray inside, reminded us just how interchangeable these puzzle pieces can be for Denver. That might be the true electricity of the Nuggets’ fully-wired lineup.

Jokić and Murray’s pick-and-roll is unstoppable, feared by rival coaches as one of the most challenging duets to defend in basketball. And yet the Nuggets can run their offense through Gordon. Both Caldwell-Pope and Porter double as lethal screeners as much as far-off floor spacers. All five starters saw greater than 32 minutes. They could have all logged more. They turned the ball over just once all evening long. The whole unit defends, everyone liable to jump a passing lane or swat someone’s attempt in the paint.

“S**t, it’s tough,” said Lakers head coach Darvin Ham. “A championship team isn’t going to beat itself.”

DENVER, CO - APRIL 20: Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) in the first quarter during the first round of the NBA playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Aaron Gordon drives to the basket against LeBron James in the first quarter of Game 1. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The full force of Denver felt more apparent as James and Anthony Davis received little contributions from the Lakers’ supporting cast. Despite James’ herculean first half and Davis’ 32 points and 14 rebounds, Los Angeles saw D’Angelo Russell shoot 1-of-9 from distance, Rui Hachimura total just seven points, and Austin Reaves take until the fourth quarter to make any tangible impact. Gabe Vincent, the Lakers’ free-agent acquisition, injured for much of the regular season, racked up three quick fouls attempting to guard Murray and would play just over seven minutes — far from a triumphant vengeance against the Nuggets team that upended Vincent’s Miami Heat in last year's Finals, after Denver dismantled these Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

For the better part of two seasons, Denver has simply sported a completeness with which few teams can compare — and that group may only include the East-leading Boston Celtics by the time this postseason concludes. The Nuggets are keen on leaving either Jokić or Murray on the floor at all times. Jokić carried Denver’s second unit at the end of the first quarter. Murray shepherded a fourth-quarter start while DeAndre Jordan, dusted off of Denver’s bench, provided positive minutes just like he managed during last year’s playoff run.

The Nuggets play with an inevitability, that a back-breaking run like that third quarter shift is always lurking around the corner. Perhaps Los Angeles has another look outside of guarding Jokić with a combination of Hachimura and then Davis. It’s unlikely the Lakers’ shooters bring such little extra spark throughout three more games. And yet Denver seems to have any answer for any new wrinkle. Malone’s Nuggets have been passing every test thrown at them for quite some time.