DENVER — — Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers the last time those teams met in the Western Conference Finals in the 2020 NBA bubble.
So what similarities does he see between LeBron James and Nikola Jokic?
“I feel like the only difference is Bron can jump higher than Jokic,” Caldwell-Pope said after Jokic’s monstrous performance fueled the Nuggets’ 132-126 Game 1 win on Tuesday night.
“That’s really offensive,” Jokic replied with mock outrage at his athletic ability. “Just kidding. I mean, being compared to one of the greatest of all time – or THE greatest of all time – I think that’s really cool.”
Jokic doesn’t really see many similarities in their game: “We affect the game in different ways,” Jokic said. “But he is a very good player.”
No one was better than Jokic on Tuesday night.
Jokic recorded his sixth triple-double of these playoffs with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, giving the Nuggets a 1-0 series lead.
Behind Jokic’s sizzling start and solid finish, and Jamal Murray’s 31 points as he battled an ear infection, Denver beat the Lakers in Game 1 of the West Finals for all first time.
After a slow start, Anthony Davis had 40 points and 10 rebounds, and James finished with 26 points, 12 boards and nine assists. Austin Reaves had 23 points and fueled Los Angeles’ desperate fourth-quarter run that nearly obliterated Denver’s 14-point cushion after three.
Caldwell-Pope scored 21 points against his former team. Michael Porter Jr. had 15 points and 10 boards and Bruce Brown added 16 points.
The Nuggets led by no less than 21 but the Lakers shot within three points twice in the fourth quarter, once on Reaves’ 3-pointer at 124-121 and again on James’ pair of free throws that made 129-126 with 1:12 remaining.
“Yeah, it took us a half to get into the game,” James said, “and that was pretty much the ball game right there. They punched us in the mouth to start …I know the game is won in 48 minutes, but they set the tone in 24 minutes and we made up for the next 24.
In the fourth quarter, Rui Hachimura kept Jokic, allowing Davis to overload the paint and make it harder for the Nuggets big man to dominate the paint. But it wasn’t enough.
After Jokic sank two free throws with 26 seconds left to give Denver a 131-126 lead, Murray pushed the ball from James as he was about to bring it to the hoop and Jokic recovered the loose ball before being fouled with 10.9 seconds left. He sank one of the two and James missed by 3 as the seconds ticked away.
“I’d rather clean things up after a win in the Western Conference Finals than after a loss, so I’ll take it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But a lot of work to do.”
Game 2 is Thursday night at the Ball Arena, where the top-seeded Nuggets are 7-0 in the playoffs and 41-7 overall, the league’s best home record this season.
Jokic said a day earlier that the Nuggets desperately needed to avoid following in the footsteps of the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, who both dropped their home opener against the Lakers and ended up losing in six matches.
Additionally, James has won his last 20 playoffs in which his team won Game 1.
The Nuggets hadn’t won Game 1 against the Lakers since 1979, when they won Game 1 of the series best-of-three only to lose the next two. It’s the closest the Nuggets have ever come to eliminating the Lakers, who have beaten Denver three times in the Western Finals, including in the Florida bubble in 2020.
Showcasing his MVP credentials in a superb display of power in the first quarter, Jokic knocked down a dozen boards and dished out five assists to go with eight points. This made him the first player since at least 1997 to have a dozen or more boards and at least five assists in any quarterback in an NBA playoff game.
The Lakers used an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to 11 points before Jokic responded with a breathtaking 3 points on Davis’ outstretched arm barely floating the net at the buzzer, leaving Davis trudging back to the bench in disbelief.
“Sometimes luck is on our side,” Jokic said. “It’s a crazy move, of course.”
The ‘Joker’, who missed out on his third consecutive NBA MVP title this year as he was edged out by Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, had 19 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks at halftime as the Nuggets took a 72-54 lead in the locker room.
“Thank goodness it’s the best of seven and it’s not the NCAA tournament,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s the first to four. Everything will be fine, trust me.”
With 258 combined points, it was the highest-scoring Conference Finals game that hadn’t gone to overtime since 1987, when Detroit beat Boston 145-119.
Lakers: LA’s only lead came on James’ bucket to open the game. … The Lakers lost to the Nuggets in the playoffs for just the ninth time in 34 tries.
Nuggets: Jokic outshot the Lakers 16-13 on his own before halftime. … The only player since 1997 to do what Jokic did in the first quarter was Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao, who blitzed the Wizards for 12 rebounds and five assists in a regular-season game in October 2012.
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