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Jokic leads Nuggets past LeBron and Lakers in NBA playoff opener

Nikola Jokic Denver Nuggets defeated Lakers Game 1 NBA Playoffs

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) dunks against Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, back, during the second half in Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Saturday, April 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DENVER – Unlike the crowd that drowned out the Los Angeles Lakers’ pregame introductions, the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets were a little late to the playoff party Saturday night.

However, they stepped up their offense and defense after a sputtering start and edged past the Lakers 114-103 behind Nikola Jokic’s 32 points and 12 rebounds in the Western Conference playoff opener, their ninth straight victory over the Lakers.

After watching LeBron James score 19 points in the first half, highlighted by a pull-up 3 from 30 feet in the final second that put the Lakers ahead 60-57, the Nuggets limited the NBA scoring leader to nine points in the second half and didn’t allow him to even take a shot in the fourth quarter until just 1:20 remained.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “These are the play-offs. No team in the play-offs, if you’re 12 early, you’re not just going to take your ball and go home. We still have a lot of fight in us and we know we were better than what we played in the beginning.

“That’s a good team there. They came into the playoffs playing extremely well, and they showed it. “LeBron was on target, I thought he was going to score 50 points tonight with the way he played and shot the ball.”

James finished with 27 points and Anthony Davis had 32.

That wasn’t nearly enough to match the prowess of the reigning champions.

Two other Nuggets matched Jokic’s double-double – Jamal Murray (22 points, 10 assists) and Anthony Gordon (12 points, 11 rebounds) – and Michael Porter Jr. came close with 19 points and eight boards.

Denver handed James just his fourth loss in 17 opening first-round games, but Malone said, “We have to watch the film and see what we can do better. This is going to be a great series.”

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The Lakers haven’t beaten the Nuggets since Dec. 16, 2022. They’ll try again Monday night in Game 2 at Ball Arena, where Denver is now 34-8 this season.

“To be honest, we are desperate too. We don’t want to lose at home,” Jokic said. “I think every match will be interesting. So hopefully we will match and be even more physical than them.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham agreed with Malone’s sentiment about a competitive series, saying, “Everyone is going to go crazy after one game, and give them credit for serving at home. They are a strong home team, difficult to beat in general, but they are very good at home. … (But) we did a lot of good things tonight.”

Denver just did more things better.

The Nuggets had 15 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points, 10 more than the Lakers, who grabbed just six offensive boards. And the Nuggets committed just four turnovers — just one by their starters — while the Lakers turned the ball over more than a dozen times, including a whopping seven by James.

“I thought we played good ball tonight, it just could have been better,” James said. “You don’t have a lot of room for error against the Denver team, especially on the home floor. It’s just a team that has been through everything. Obviously they are the defending champions, so you have to execute, you have to shoot, you have to defend. And then you can’t give them any extra assets.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored all 12 of his points after halftime, made a trio of 3-pointers in a 13-0 run that helped the Nuggets take control at 89-74 in the third quarter.

Porter excelled on the field, as coach Malone predicted, after a difficult week for his family in which a younger brother, Coban Porter, was sentenced Friday to six years in prison for a fatal drunk driving accident and another, a former security guard Toronto Raptors. Jontay Porter, banned from the NBA for betting on basketball and disclosing confidential information to other gamblers.

“I think I definitely tried to compartmentalize,” Porter said. “Some bad and sad things have happened to some of my brothers, but I still have fifteen, sixteen brothers here. So I knew I had to be here for them and come here and do my job.

The Nuggets entered these playoffs with a shot in the arm, but were confident in their chances to repeat after tying a franchise record with 57 regular season wins, four more than last year.

One sign of their looseness: Jokic, who stars in a teaser for “Despicable Me 4,” in which he seeks therapy because the Minions think he’s their boss, arrived at Ball Arena decked out in a black-and-gray striped scarf and gray pants. resembles Felonius Gru, the main character from the film franchise.

James should have shown up dressed as Vector because he played the perfect villain, at least until halftime.

Denver defeated the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last season, the penultimate step the Nuggets had to take before claiming their first NBA title.

“I never get into the ‘here we go again’ mentality,” James said. “In one game they protected their home court. We have another chance on Monday to come back and get better.”