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NBA playoffs: Nikola Jokić, Nuggets seize on opportunity with aggressive 1st punch at relentless Lakers

DENVER — Anthony Davis smiled, Nikola Jokić shrugged — one of the rare moments where two titans collide at the same position for 40 minutes, battling it out directly against one another with real stakes.

Jokić hit one of those contested buzzer-beaters to send Ball Arena into a high at the end of the third quarter, prompting the reaction of respect from Davis. And if Game 1 is any indication for the rest of this series, the line for the NBA’s best big men will start behind these two.

Jokić struck first blood in the Western Conference finals with yet another historic evening as the Denver Nuggets held off the Los Angeles Lakers 132-126 Tuesday night. The two-time MVP saw his reign end recently, but unlike Joel Embiid, Jokić showed up throughout this opener.

Jokić put up 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, getting off to the best possible start as the Nuggets took full advantage of the Denver altitude, jumping on the Lakers before a swift second-half response made a runaway a very close game.

In the first two rounds, teams stayed away from Davis on defense, and it was unknown how Jokić would approach the matchup. But the answer was in the opening minutes when he went right at him — first on the offensive glass with tip-ins, then driving around Davis for dunks.

“It’s a playoff. We need to be aggressive. We need to win the game,” Jokić said. “Especially in front of our home crowd, especially because they won two Game 1s. So I think being aggressive, it’s normal right now.”

Davis didn’t quite fall asleep, it was just superior moves by a legendary player who happened to make All-NBA second team behind Embiid.

“I thought when he felt there was one-on-one coverage, facing up and getting to the basket and using that understated athleticism to finish in traffic,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That was great to see.”

As for the high-arching 3-pointer at the third-quarter buzzer, Jokić said simply, “Sometimes luck is on our side. It’s a crazy shot, of course. It’s not something that I work on. I’m glad it went in.”

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis reacts after a 3-pointer by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Ball Arena in Denver on May 16, 2023. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis reacts after a 3-pointer by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Ball Arena in Denver on May 16, 2023. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images) (Wally Skalij via Getty Images)

Everyone was aware the Lakers marched into Golden State and Memphis, stealing the series openers then taking care of home court. So Jokić’s start was an appropriate one. His 30-20-10 showing was the fourth such performance in NBA history and he owns two of them while also being the first to do it since the ABA-NBA merger.

“His aggression, him driving the ball, dunking the ball in traffic,” Malone said. “We always talk about an aggressive Nikola Jokić is a very effective Nikola Jokić. A hell of a job by him.”

But the Lakers didn’t hide, and the response was led by Davis. The Nuggets showed they weren’t going to be awed by the conference finals stage, playing to the level of their postseason consistency, but the Lakers have a sense of timing throughout the course of a game.

They trailed by as many as 20 multiple times in the third, but it always felt they were within a good enough distance. Davis was relentless with his appetite for scoring — finishing with a game-high 40 points on 14-of-23 shooting. Since stopping Jokić seems futile, with yet another triple-double (six in these playoffs) and him shooting 70%, the first player to have back-to-back triple-doubles with that efficiency, the best defense is more offense.

By the time the fourth rolled around, Jokić’s aforementioned shot, along with Jamal Murray’s shot-clock beater over LeBron James, weren’t just exclamation points in a blowout win. They were necessary and fortuitous, along with Michael Porter Jr. digging out a loose ball with 2:34 left and the Nuggets clinging to a 4-point lead.

Seconds later, Aaron Gordon finished an alley-oop from Murray to give Ball Arena reason to breathe after an anxiety-filled second half. Murray, who’s been battling what’s best described as a “bug,” stepped up to score 31 with 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

He was listed as questionable before the game, but there seemed to be little doubt he would play.

“Manageable. Yeah, I got an ear infection on Saturday,” Murray said. “You know how ear infections are; they hurt a lot. Just kind of wait it out. Couldn’t really do much, like you said, on Saturday and Sunday.”

Murray wasn’t alone with his shot-making; it was impressive across the board. Former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope found himself knocking down triples, scoring 21. Defensive-minded Bruce Brown even took a trip down Broadway for a dunk in traffic for 2 of his 16 points.

James, who missed a triple with 45 seconds left that could’ve tied the game, looked spry with the rest before the series, scoring 26 with 12 rebounds and 9 assists in 39 minutes. Austin Reaves hit five critical triples to keep pulling the Lakers closer in the fourth, scoring 23.

The Nuggets and Lakers had a combined field-goal percentage of 54.9%, the highest in a conference finals game since the Lakers and Mavericks combined for a field-goal percentage of 55.7% on May 25, 1988.

“Continue to keep the pressure on them, continue to just give them any look that we can,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I feel like the more pressure we put on them, the more we force the other guys to make shots, make the plays, it’s better for us.”

Caldwell-Pope wouldn’t buy into the storyline of him having inside knowledge or extra motivation against his former team, the squad he won a championship with in the 2020 bubble.

It’s business as usual, seemingly.

None of the remaining four teams have played with the consistent concentration of the Nuggets. It sounds simple enough, but there’s a commitment to executing the game plan for 2.5 hours and letting the results bear out. Boston, Miami and these Lakers all have had stinkers where they submitted early.

Denver is playing like a team that appreciates the opportunity in front of itself. It’s almost as if everyone looked across the league and saw the carnage from the vestiges of unfilled expectations, doing everything it can not to be added to that graveyard.

Denver's Nikola Jokić leads Aaron Gordon (50), Jamal Murray (27) and Michael Porter Jr. (1) toward the bench during the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Ball Arena in Denver on May 16, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)
Denver's Nikola Jokić leads Aaron Gordon (50), Jamal Murray (27) and Michael Porter Jr. (1) toward the bench during the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Ball Arena in Denver on May 16, 2023. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post) (AAron Ontiveroz via Getty Images)

“A lot of our guys are battle-tested. We’ve been in a ton of close games,” Malone said. “I didn’t think there was any panic. I think there was poise. Our guys looked at one another and realized what we had to do to close this game out.”

The Nuggets’ sweat equity enables them to stick to their plan. The Lakers’ lack of it allows them the flexibility to try any darn thing — after all, this collection of players is very much like instant grits.

Just add sugar.

For Lakers coach Darvin Ham, that meant throwing Rui Hachimura onto Jokić to relieve Davis from the taxing duties. Hachimura, surprisingly, found success in getting into Jokić’s comfort space while steering him toward Davis’ area code.

“But just thinking about it right now, something that we liked,” Davis said. “Just to also have me roaming and things like that. But like I said, good adjustment, but we’ll go back and look and see ways that we can be better.”

The Lakers didn’t seem terribly fazed by the loss — they took a punch, delivered some shots of their own and showed a resiliency that’s been on full display so far in the playoffs.

“It took us a half to get into the game and that was pretty much the ballgame right there,” James said. “I think they had more offensive rebounds than we had total rebounds in the first half.”

It’ll likely be a counterpunch from Davis in Game 2 — err, Round 2.