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Denver’s full power was on display against the Lakers in Game 1 as its title defense began with a win

It was close, until it wasn’t.

The Lakers even led, leading 60-57 at halftime, thanks to a logo triple from LeBron James before the buzzer, until a 20-4 Nuggets run took an 89-78 lead at the end of three frames broke open. Denver led Los Angeles by as many as 14 in that momentum-swinging third quarter, as former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope nailed four 3-pointers to limit several tic-tac-toe possessions for the reigning champions, ultimately taking home Game 1 took. win, 114-103.

Denver’s synergy and continuity were on full display, the five-man lineup starring Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, while Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. wrapping things up, with such understanding that it was as if they were finishing each other’s sentences. They can play at their own pace and pace. They can orchestrate wide-open looks with relative ease. When Jokić finds Caldwell-Pope in the opposite corner, Gordon is already sliding in front of Anthony Davis to shield him away from a play. When Jokić catches a nifty pocket pass from Murray, Gordon is already sliding to the baseline to jump for another lob. Whenever the Nuggets get in transition, Porter is ready to move for a trailing triple.

“As the game went on and the guys got more and more locked in, I thought the third quarter was great,” said Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, “but I really thought the end of the second quarter, to really get back into it , That allowed us to get deep and have that big third quarter that we had.

Yes, the Lakers cut the Nuggets’ lead to just six points with six minutes to play in the fourth. But Denver wrestled this game out of the jaws of doubt during that third-quarter sprint and never really looked back in Game 1. The exclamation point in the final minutes of the game, where Gordon fed Jokić in the high post and Jokić sent a lob to Murray threw. inside, reminded us how interchangeable these puzzle pieces can be for Denver. That might be the true strength of the Nuggets’ all-wired lineup.

Jokić and Murray’s pick-and-roll is unstoppable and is feared by rival coaches as one of the most challenging duets to defend in basketball. And yet the Nuggets can run their offense through Gordon. Both Caldwell-Pope and Porter function as lethal screeners as much as they do distance spacers. All five starters saw more than 32 minutes. They all could have logged more. They only turned the ball over once all evening. The entire unit is defending, everyone is at risk of jumping into a passing lane or hitting someone’s attempt in the paint.

“Shit, it’s tough,” Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said. “A championship team is not going to beat itself.”

DENVER, CO - APRIL 20: Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) in the first quarter during the first round of the NBA playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)DENVER, CO - APRIL 20: Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) in the first quarter during the first round of the NBA playoffs at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Aaron Gordon drives to the basket against LeBron James in the first quarter of Game 1. (Photo by Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Denver’s full power felt more apparent when James and Anthony Davis received few contributions from the Lakers’ supporting cast. Despite James’ huge first half and Davis’ 32 points and 14 rebounds, Los Angeles saw D’Angelo Russell shoot 1-for-9 from distance, Rui Hachimura scored just seven points and Austin Reaves needed until the fourth quarter to do anything make it tangible. influence. Gabe Vincent, the Lakers’ free-agent acquisition, was injured for much of the regular season, picked up three quick fouls while trying to guard Murray and would play just over seven minutes — a far cry from a triumphant revenge against the Nuggets team that upended Vincent’s Miami Heat. in last year’s finals, after Denver dismantled these Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

For the better part of two seasons, Denver has simply shown a completeness that few teams can compare to — and by the time this postseason ends, that group may include only the East-leading Boston Celtics. The Nuggets want to leave Jokić or Murray on the floor at all times. Jokić carried Denver’s second unit at the end of the first quarter. Murray provided the fourth-quarter start, while DeAndre Jordan, dusted off Denver’s bench, provided positive minutes, much like he did in last year’s playoffs.

The Nuggets are playing with the inevitability that a grueling run like that third-quarter shift is always looming. Maybe Los Angeles has another look outside of guarding Jokić with a combination of Hachimura and then Davis. It’s unlikely the Lakers’ shooters will provide that much extra spark through three more games. And yet Denver seems to have an answer for every new wrinkle. Malone’s Nuggets have passed every test for quite some time.