DENVER — It’s tough to criticize a 17-3 start.
But the Los Angeles Lakers faced questions about their scorching open to the season that included just seven games against teams that would qualify for the playoffs as of Tuesday night.
With their toughest test of the season since an opening-night loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers answered the bell in dramatic fashion Tuesday with a 105-96 win over the Denver Nuggets in one of the toughest road atmospheres in the NBA.
And they did so with multiple players dealing with “flu-like symptoms,” according to head coach Frank Vogel.
Billed as a matchup between the top two teams in the Western Conference, the game was a showcase for the defense and depth of a team that looks very much like an NBA title favorite.
Davis thrives through illness
Anthony Davis appeared to be hit worst with whatever’s going around the Lakers’ locker room. Vogel said that Davis was “under the weather” prior to tip, and he struggled in a scoreless opening quarter that saw him take just two shots while LeBron James led the way with 11 points.
But whether it was illness, game flow or a bit of both in the first, Davis found his stride in the second quarter, scoring nine of 11 Lakers points in one stretch and totaling 10 before halftime. He finished the game with 25 points, 10 rebounds and a blocked shot.
Davis shuts down Jokic despite health struggles
More impressive than his box score was his effort on Denver’s All-NBA center Nikola Jokic. Jokic didn’t hit a field goal until a layup in the final second of a first half that saw him score thee points. He finished with 13 points, eight assists and five rebounds on 4-of-12 shooting.
Denver’s last shot at getting back in the game saw Jokic post Davis up while trailing 100-96 inside the game’s final two minutes. When Jokic’s layup rolled off the rim, the game was essentially over.
Lakers pushing Davis as DPOY
On a night that saw Vogel and James both touting Davis as the Defensive Player of the Year favorite, Davis made a strong case on the floor against one of the NBA’s best big men.
“I take pride in my defense,” Davis said after the game. “Any time in a game when a guy’s threatening to score on me, I take it personally and try to play without fouling and get stops for my team.”
That he did so on a night that required a halftime IV only strengthens the case.
“Playing through illness, getting an IV at halftime,” Vogel said of Davis after the game. “He jut felt lousy the last two days. He comes in and has a Defensive Player of the Year type of performance.”
Rudy Gobert awaits Davis on Wednesday
Davis was sluggish in the postgame locker room and said he started feeling bad prior to Sunday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks.
With the Utah Jazz awaiting Wednesday on a back-to-back road set, he sounds like he’s planning for another battle against an elite NBA center in Rudy Gobert.
Nuggets rally late
The Lakers looked primed for a blowout in a dominant 60-49 first half that saw James and Anthony Davis take turns in starring roles.
The Nuggets came out energized in the third quarter, opening with a 15-4 run to tie the game at 64, eventually taking a 72-71 lead. As Jokic struggled, the Nuggets looked to Paul Millsap (21 points, eight rebounds) and Jamal Murray (22 points, five rebounds and five assists).
James, Davis shut things down
But the Lakers responded as only they can, looking to the most dangerous duo in the NBA.
Davis hit a deep 3-pointer from the wing that James followed up with a pair of buckets at the basket for a 7-0 run.
The Nuggets wouldn’t take the lead again as the Lakers staved off a late rally to score a win that should quiet the questions that arrived after a home loss to Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.
James finished with 25 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Meanwhile, the Lakers bench outscored Denver’s 42-to-26, led by a 13-point, six-rebound effort from Dwight Howard.
But Tuesday’s win was about Davis’ effort on a difficult night.
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