LeBron James’ power has bewildered hundreds of team before, his size overwhelming them, his vision picking them apart.
The Nuggets were the latest victims Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center, falling 120-116 in overtime, despite a valiant effort in their last game before the all-star break. The loss snapped Denver’s four-game winning streak and dropped its record to 38-17 heading into the break.
“Cannot fault the effort by our guys,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Our guys gave everything they had. A tough loss, at home, going into the break. Couldn’t be more proud of our guys.”
In a matchup of the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the Western Conference, James blitzed his way to 32 points, further emphasizing that his reign atop the league isn’t over just yet. James already had a huge scoring night in hand, and his 14 assists made it even more difficult to contain the rest of Los Angeles’ supporting cast.
The Nuggets had several chances to tie it in overtime, but Nikola Jokic fired an errant pass with less than 20 seconds remaining, and Denver could never recover. Jokic, who battled foul trouble the entire game, finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was fantastic again, finishing with 32 points and 10 assists. It was his second-half play that ultimately forced the overtime session.
“With two great teams like that, it comes down to execution and getting stops, rebounding, details, stuff we go over in film and practice and shootaround and walk through,” Murray said, lamenting his team’s missed chances.
Anthony Davis scored a game-high 33 points, powering the 64-48 advantage Los Angeles owned inside.
Jokic clawed all night with the Lakers’ frontcourt but had had enough after one third-quarter whistle and slammed the ball in frustration. His fourth foul sent him to the bench, which allowed for Murray to orchestrate the offense and take over. Murray scored 13 points in the quarter alone on 6-for-8 from the field. With rugged drives to the hoop and a deft touch on jumpers, Murray, along with strong finishes from Jerami Grant, helped the Nuggets stake an 87-84 lead heading into the fourth.
Before the game, Malone heaped praise on James, whom he coached for five years as an assistant in Cleveland.
“That’s one thing that’s always bothered me about the LeBron story,” Malone said. “Everybody says, high school, NBA, USA Basketball, great player, but no one ever talks about, because he’s so athletically gifted, they think it’s come easy for him. He’s put countless hours into the gym. … That never gets talked enough about, because they see 6-foot-8 athlete, runaway train, and it’s easy to get caught up in that.”
That train ran right through the lane early in the third quarter for an emphatic dunk, much to the pleasure of the vocal purple-and-gold faithful that traveled for the game.
Denver’s best answer was to continue to feed its own stars.
Murray has averaged 28.3 points on nearly 60 percent shooting from the field since returning from an ankle injury four games ago. Though he appeared to aggravate the injury in Denver’s win over San Antonio on Monday, he continued his torrid run in the first half Wednesday.
Heading into Wednesday’s game, Malone lauded Murray’s determination.
“If a guy is out there and he’s not moving well and he’s becoming a detriment to the team, then regardless of what he says, I’m going to pull the plug,” Malone said. “I have to do what’s best for the team. But Jamal, in his four years, has proven time and time again to be a very tough customer, mentally and physically. The ability to play through pain, very high pain threshold.”
The 13-point lead Denver worked so hard to build evaporated in the second quarter as Los Angeles established a foothold in the paint. The Lakers hung 38 points in the second quarter to stake a 61-55 lead going into halftime.
James and Davis overpowered the Nuggets’ relatively small frontcourt, bulldozing for a combined 28 in the first half. The Lakers scored 36 points in the paint overall, while Denver’s star duo kept it close.
Jokic and Murray were almost equally as effective, dropping 24 points together over the first two quarters. The Nuggets also got significant contributions from Monte Morris and Paul Millsap, who were instrumental in building the lead in the first place.
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