LOS ANGELES: Nikola Jokic produced a dominant display as the Denver Nuggets held off a late Los Angeles Lakers fightback to win their NBA Western Conference finals opener 132-126 on Tuesday. Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Jokic finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists to give top-seeded Denver a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Jokic received offensive support from Jamal Murray, who finished with 31 points, while four other Denver players posted double-digit points tallies. The Lakers were led by Anthony Davis, who scored 40 points with 10 rebounds. LeBron James added 26 points while Austin Reaves added 23 points.
Denver led by 21 points in the third quarter but saw their lead whittled away to just three as the Lakers swept back into contention with a gutsy fourth-quarter fightback that ultimately fell just short. “In the first half we were really good — controlled the game, controlled everything, controlled the pace, controlled the defense and then second half we lost it,” Jokic told ESPN. “But whether you win by one point or win by 20 at this time of year, it doesn’t matter — a win is a win.”
Denver coach Michael Malone saluted his team’s composure in closing out victory. “A lot of our guys are battle-tested, we’ve been in a ton of close games,” Malone said. “I didn’t think there was any panic — there was poise. Our guys looked at one another and realized what we had to do to close this game out.” James bemoaned the Lakers’ slow start. “It took us a half to get into the game and that was pretty much the ballgame right there,” James said. “We have to understand that we have to start from the tip-off — and they punched us in the mouth to start.”
With a raucous Ball Arena home crowd roaring them on, the Nuggets took early control, surging into a 20-9 lead midway through the first quarter with a flurry of scoring that threatened to overwhelm the visitors. Jokic was at the heart of the opening onslaught, imposing himself with eight points, 12 rebounds and five assists in the first quarter alone to help the Nuggets take a 37-25 lead heading into the second quarter.
Denver continued to score freely through the second quarter to take a commanding 72-54 half-time lead against a Lakers defense regarded as one of the best in the league. Although Los Angeles managed to get their offense moving in the third quarter, outscoring Denver 38-34, the Nuggets continued to test the Lakers’ defense. Jokic completed his sixth triple-double of the playoffs midway through the third quarter and then electrified the home crowd with a 31-foot three-pointer on the buzzer to put the Nuggets ahead 106-92 heading into the final quarter.
The Lakers came surging back in the fourth quarter when a Reaves three-pointer trimmed the Denver lead to eight points with just over 10 minutes remaining. The Nuggets responded with four unanswered points from Murray to help Denver take a 14-point lead with just over seven minutes left on the clock. But again the Lakers responded and two quick threes from Reaves helped the visitors make it a three-point game after a 9-0 run.
The Nuggets held on however and a late Jokic free throw sealed the win. James took scant consolation from the Lakers’ fourth-quarter fightback. “In postseason it doesn’t matter if you cut it to one or you’re down 20, if you lose, you lose,” James said. “They are 1-0 and we have to come back with desperation going into game two. We have to play better, we have to rebound better … We need to be better in all facets of the game.” Game two in the series takes place in Denver on Thursday. The winner of the series will face either Boston or Miami in the NBA finals next month. — AFP