LeBron James gave the Denver Nuggets his best shot on Monday. That’s not enough.
Powered by a history-making Nikola Jokic triple-double, the Nuggets rallied for a 113-111 victory, a 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The win continued a remarkable postseason run by the Nuggets while securing their first trip to the NBA Finals. They did so while overcoming a postseason best effort by one of the game’s all-time greats.
James opened the game by scoring 21 points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 34-26 lead. He shot 7-of-9 from the field, including a 4-for-4 effort from 3-point range. A lob attempt from beyond the 3-point arc dropped over the net for a basket as a sign of things to come.
The bucket sparked James’ personal 8-0 run that gave the Lakers a 23-15 lead. He was hot throughout the half and didn’t leave the game until Locker had an early layup with 4.3 seconds left. James’ 31 first-half points gave the Lakers a 73-58 lead at halftime.
The Nuggets bounce back
But the claws were not surprised. They shot 50% from the field in the first half despite being down 15 points. They opened the third quarter with a 9-2 run to force a Lakers timeout. A Kentavious Caldwell-Pope layup 7:21 into the third extended the Nuggets’ run to 24-8 and gave them their first lead of the game at 82-81.
Jokic provided the assist on the go-ahead bucket. The dish was his 10th of the game and his eighth triple-double of the playoffs. This tied Wilt Chamberlain for most triple-doubles in a single season. Jokic has at least four more games to add to his tally.
James, who played all but 4.3 seconds of the game, was held scoreless throughout Denver’s rally. He got on the scoreboard for the first time with a floater with 2:47 left in the second half. But a potential Los Angeles blowout turned in Denver’s favor, as the Nuggets built a 36-16 third-quarter edge to take a 94-89 lead into the fourth quarter.
Denver maintained its edge for much of the fourth quarter. Offensive fouls on Jokic on consecutive possessions prompted back-to-back buckets by the Lakers, with an Anthony Davis dunk tying the game at 102-102 with 4:59 remaining. Tension on both sides increased.
From there, the game was back-and-forth until the final minute. But as they’ve done all postseason, the Nuggets made big plays that mattered most. Jokic’s layup in traffic with 51.1 seconds left gave Denver a 113-11 lead.
The Lakers had two chances to answer, but couldn’t come up with another bucket. On the Lakers’ next possession, James launched a desperation fallaway jumper from the baseline as the shot clock expired.
Given another chance to tie the game with four seconds left, the Lakers looked to James again. This time he attacked the basket, where he was met by a double team from Aaron Gordon and Jamaal Murray. Gordon, contesting James’ earlier miss, blocked the layup attempt and the game was over.
The Nuggets were in the NBA Finals. The Lakers, meanwhile, suffered a midseason turnaround and an unexpected playoff run from play-in against a superior Denver team.
Jokic, as he has done throughout the season and playoffs, has anchored the Nuggets’ success. The two-time MVP helped the Nuggets rally and make several big plays in the final minutes of the game. He continued to hit extraordinary shots at crucial moments of the game.
He finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, 3 blocks and a steal. He shot 11 of 24 from the field, including 3 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc. He was presented with the Western Conference Finals MVP trophy after the game. But he was not alone.
All five Nuggets starters scored in double figures. Murray finished with 25 points while shooting 10 of 18 from the field. Michael Porter Jr. struggled on 5-for-16 attempts from the field, but contributed a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Gordon had 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists and came up with defensive stops on James on the Lakers’ final two possessions.
James scored 40 points and came up just short of a triple-double with 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 steals. He shot 15 of 25 from the field and 4 of 7 from beyond the arc. Expecting the Lakers to win in the first half, he turned to overdrive. But the 38-year-old couldn’t keep up the momentum after half-time in a game where he played all but the last few seconds of the first half.
Davis finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal. Rui Hachimura had 10 points in his postseason debut in the starting lineup. Dennis Schroder replaced D’Angelo Russell as the starting point guard, and Russell struggled to stop Murray defensively throughout the series. Schroeder finished with 13 points, 5 assists and 2 steals. Russell scored 4 points in 15 minutes.
The Nuggets will have a long break before Game 1 of the NBA Finals on June 1 in Denver. They will face the winner between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat. The Heat need to sweep the 8th-seeded Celtics themselves in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets will rest and prepare while remaining four wins away from the NBA Finals.