LeBron James, Lakers pound Nuggets in Game 1 of Western Conference Finals – The Denver Post



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Lakers looked like a team hungry and well-rested. The Nuggets, in their first conference finals since 2009, looked shell-shocked.

Los Angeles battered the Nuggets, 126-114, in Friday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and played as advertised. Their pace and toughness overwhelmed the Nuggets, who looked dazed at the speed of their glitzy opponents.

They were also left dumbfounded by the 24 free-throw attempts the Lakers enjoyed in the second quarter.

“They went to the foul line 24 times in one quarter,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, before repeating himself. “Twenty four times in a quarter, which is an extremely high number, on pace for almost 100.”

The Nuggets could never recover, against both the star-power of the Lakers and the officials.

LeBron James ran a passing clinic, Anthony Davis proved to be a matchup nightmare, and former stars Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard turned back the clock. James controlled the tempo with 15 points and 12 assists, and had no problem ceding the scoring load to Davis, who finished with 37 points.

Denver’s stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray finished with 21 points apiece, but everything was a struggle in the face of a swarming Lakers defense. When Murray momentarily found a spark in the third quarter from the 3-point line, the Lakers immediately snuffed it out. With both players battling foul trouble, Denver’s offense looked completely out of sync.

The Nuggets’ 16 turnovers played right into the Lakers’ high-octane style. Their aggression was instrumental in building a 37-28 advantage on free-throw attempts, most coming during that curious second quarter. Rondo’s throwback seven-point, nine-assist line didn’t hurt either.

“A huge point of emphasis going into this series was transition, getting back, makes, misses, turnovers, dead balls, and they scored 25 transition points,” Malone said.

Added Murray: “We’re not going to overreact, but we just gotta be better. The first half really didn’t go our way, and that really took us out of a lot of stuff. I felt like we should’ve had the lead if it wasn’t for some unfortunate things that happened.”

Outside of Jokic and Murray, the Nuggets got little help. Nuggets starters Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant and Gary Harris were a combined 7-of-23 from the field.

Rather than relent, leaving a crease for the Nuggets to claw back, the Lakers poured it on in the third quarter. Davis was devastating, finishing his patented lobs, while the Nuggets’ offense stagnated. James served six assists and Davis dropped 16 points in the quarter alone. Meanwhile, the lead bloated to 103-79 heading into the fourth.

Jokic played the whole quarter, but picked up two more fouls to keep him out of rhythm. Whether Jokic is able to adapt to the Lakers’ varying defensive coverages may well determine how long the series lasts.

Even insulated inside the bubble for 74 days, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he could sense the excitement in Denver for their first Conference Finals game in 11 years.

“We hear that it’s just been crazy back there, exciting, and the whole city is kind of rallying around our team,” Malone said.

They’d already authored NBA history over the first two rounds. To make even more, they’d need to penetrate a stout Lakers front. And Malone trusted his two stars to navigate whatever defensive schemes the Lakers devised.

“The good thing for us, in 14 games here we feel we have seen everything,” Malone said. “The Utah Jazz got very aggressive with Jamal Murray. The Clippers got really aggressive with both Jamal and Nikola. And we have been playing some really meaningful games the last few years where we feel that we have seen anything a team can throw at us and be comfortable with it.”

But what the Nuggets couldn’t account for was Los Angeles’ strength. On defense, the Lakers flew around and cashed in several huge rejections at the rim. On offense, James lowered his shoulder and got the benefit of a favorable whistle.

After a strong first quarter from both sides, the Nuggets got smacked just minutes into the second. With physicality and speed, the Lakers ripped off a 17-1 run that illustrated the danger and potency of Los Angeles’ transition game.

The Nuggets were careless with the ball, and the Lakers played to their strengths. James pushed the pace at every opportunity, including off Denver’s makes.

The 34-21 quarter gave the Lakers a 70-59 lead going into halftime, which felt like it could’ve been larger. Most glaring, the Lakers owned a 32-16 free-throw advantage that had the Nuggets flustered and spending too much time pleading to the refs.

Murray and Jokic managed a combined 26 points despite both getting into foul trouble. James and Davis pummeled the Nuggets inside for 32 of their own over the first two quarters.

Game 2 is set for 5:30 p.m. Sunday night.