Nikola Jokic Leads NBA Champ Denver Nuggets Past LeBron James and Lakers 114-103 in Playoff Opener

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and Peyton Watson. right, reach for a rebound against Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura (28) during the first half in Game 1 of an NBA first-round playoff series Saturday, April 20, 2024, in Denver.

DENVER (AP) — Unlike their 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.

They turned up their offense and defense after a sputtering start, however, powering past the Lakers 114-103 behind Nikola Jokic’s 32 points and 12 rebounds in the Western Conference playoff opener, their ninth consecutive triumph over the Lakers.

After watching LeBron James score 19 first-half points, capped by a pull-up 3 from 9.7 meters in the final second that put the Lakers up 60-57, the Nuggets limited the NBA’s career 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. “This is the playoffs. No team in the playoffs, if you get down 12 early, you’re not going to just take your ball and go home. We still have plenty of fight left in us and we know that we were better than what we were playing early.

“That’s a good team over there. They came into the playoffs playing extremely well, and they showed it. LeBron was on course, I thought he’s about to have 50 points tonight, the way he was playing and shooting the ball.”

James finished with 27 points and Anthony Davis had 32. That wasn’t nearly enough to match the reigning champs’ prowess.

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 first-round openers, but Malone said, “We’ve got to watch the film to see what we can do better. This is going to be a hell of a series.”

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 game is going to be interesting. So, hopefully we are going to match and be even more physical than them.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham concurred with Malone’s sentiment about a competitive series. “Everybody’s going to lose their mind over one game — and give them their credit, they held serve at home,” he said. “They’re a tough home team, tough to beat in general, but they’re really good at home … [Still,] we did a lot of good things out there 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 a dozen times, including a whopping seven by James.

“I thought we played some good ball tonight, just could have been better,” James said. “You don’t have much room for error versus Denver’s team, especially at their home floor. They’re just a team that’s been through everything.

Obviously, they’re the defending champions, so you gotta execute, you gotta make shots, you gotta defend. And then you can’t give them extra possessions.”