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The Nuggets’ Game 1 win over the Lakers shows that it takes perfection to beat Denver

DENVER – On several levels, the Los Angeles Lakers team facing the Denver Nuggets in a Western Conference first-round playoff game is different than the one the Nuggets beat last spring.

LeBron James is a healthier and arguably better version of himself. The Lakers are more aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a group, the result of another year together. Gabe Vincent and Spencer Dinwiddie are there, while Dennis Schroder has moved on. Los Angeles is a better offensive team, more dynamic on that side of the basketball and a team that believes it is equipped to challenge the defending NBA champions.

But when you’ve beaten a team nine times in a row, like the Nuggets have beaten the Lakers, there’s something deeply and fundamentally wrong with the game on Los Angeles’s part. Saturday night’s Game 1 in front of a sold-out crowd at Ball Arena was the latest example of that. Denver walked in a 114-103 win, which seems fine enough without context. But hey, almost everything has context.

So consider this.

The Nuggets trailed by as much as 49-37 in the first half. Denver’s star guard Jamal Murray scored 22 points but went 9 of 24 from the field to get there. James and Anthony Davis combined to score 59 points, grab 20 rebounds and dish out 13 assists. Denver wasn’t playing well defensively until it stepped on the proverbial gas pedal in the third quarter.

You can argue that the Lakers should have won Game 1 or had a good chance to win in the game’s final possession. And yet the waste time from the deep reserves determined the dwindling minutes. Smiles were omnipresent on the Denver bench and the victory in Game 1 turned out to be relatively comfortable.

“We didn’t play well, but you have to give the Lakers a lot of credit,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “They showed up very well. They kept us on our heels and sent a message saying they were here and this is a brand new series. But there was a timeout and we were down eight points and I said, guys, we’re not playing great. We missed some open looks, but we had a chance to get back into the game if we changed the way we defended. I thought once we improved the defense we would have a chance to come out and run ourselves. And that’s how it turned out to be.”

The Nuggets played extremely well for a five-minute stretch in the second quarter, getting them back into the game. They put together ten very good third-quarter minutes that turned the game around. In reality, however, the Lakers dominated most of the first half and played well in the fourth quarter. In that sense, the deep-rooted advantages the Nuggets enjoyed last season are in full force this time. And those benefits go deeper than simply saying Denver is the better team.

Just like last season, the Nuggets defense took Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell out of the game. But unlike many other teams, Denver seems to realize that Russell just won’t stop shooting and trying to influence a game in other ways if he misses a few. So as the game went on, the Nuggets sent more action defensively and James and Davis sent the action to Russell by doubling him. When Russell had the ball, Denver went under screens, knowing the temptation for him to keep shooting would be too great. Sure enough, Russell capped off a 6-of-20 night in 41 minutes by firing the Lakers into a double-digit deficit.

On the other end of the floor, Denver chased Russell and Austin Reaves, guarding pick-and-rolls, which led to open shots. Not to mention the distinct lack of response for Nikola Jokic, who scored 32 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out seven assists. The Nuggets have become the rare NBA team that essentially makes you play 48 minutes of near-perfect basketball just to beat them when they’re locked up.

You can argue that the Lakers played almost 36 minutes of that basketball on Saturday night, and it didn’t matter. If you slip up against the Nuggets, if you miss a defensive assignment, if you miss open shots for a while, if you don’t take care of the basketball, Denver will make you pay. It’s demoralizing when you think about it. Against most teams on Saturday night, the Lakers did enough to win or make it a possession game later. But against the Nuggets, the stretch run became a Game 1 coronation.

“I think we know who we are, and that’s important,” Jokic said. “I think we know how to play together and that helps in games like this. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things, and I think our roles are set. We know what to do in every situation and I think that’s the best way to describe us at the moment.”

The third quarter is a good example. The Lakers broke under the offensive pressure the Nuggets applied. Denver continued to score on consecutive possessions, putting the responsibility on Los Angeles. Ultimately that was not possible. Ultimately, the Nuggets opened an 81-75 lead. That grew to 84-75 when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit home a transition 3-pointer.

To beat the Nuggets, perfection must be a goal. But it could go further than that in this game, which is why Denver’s winning streak over the Lakers stands at nine. There are so many matchup issues. There are so many defensive leaks that need to be plugged. Eventually the leaks become too big and you become the Titanic and sink. Perhaps Denver is playing with its food a bit in this series, though the Nuggets have been sensational over the past two years at focusing on the task at hand. Maybe the quarter and a half where they couldn’t make a shot turns into 48 minutes where they couldn’t make a shot.

Maybe the Lakers have finally put together the perfect game. But it will remain just one match. With so many fundamental changes to the series this season compared to last spring, the end result remains strikingly familiar. The brilliance of James and Davis is enough to keep Los Angeles competitive with the Nuggets in a unique setting. Games are closer on the scoreboard than they appear.

But the scoreboard remains the same, and so does the overall storyline.

The Nuggets are by far the better team and it seems like extraordinary measures will be needed to make this series play out differently than last season.

(Photo of LeBron James and Nikola Jokic: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)