By Arnie Leshin
With all due respect to LaBron James, when 7-foot Anthony Davis is unstoppable, it makes the Los Angeles Lakers a tough match-up.
And that was the answer to Friday night‘s game one of the Western Conference playoffs of the National Basketball Association’s restored shortened season playoffs, with top-seeded LA breaking away from a two-point deficit after one quarter to hand the surprising Denver Nuggets a 126-114 setback at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
It was close for one quarter when Denver, which has come off back-to-back comebacks after trailing 3 games to 1 against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, led 38-36. But Davis was set to have yet another big game as he turned in the game-high 37 points, the game-high 10 rebounds, and added four assists. He played 36 minutes in leading the Lakers to a 70-59 advantage at halftime, and upped it to 105-79 after three quarters.
No way were the 3rd-seeded Nuggets going to spoil the beginning of Los Angeles’ mission to win its first NBA championship since 2010 while dedicating it to the late Kobe Bryant. As for veteran superstar James, now 35 years old in his magical career, he was happy with the win but disappointed and angry when he learned that he received only six first-place votes as the Milwaukee Bucks’ Gianni Antetokompo won his second straight Most Valuable Player award.
“I wonder what the criteria is for this award,” he said after the game in which he settled for 15 points, six rebounds, and a game-high dozen assists. “I’ve finished second four times and understand that, but this time I don’t, but I’ll get over it if we can win the title.”
The winner of this best-of-seven will advance to the NBA final against the winner of the Eastern Conference finals that has the unheralded Miami Heat up 2-0 versus the 3rd-seeded Boston Celtics. Miami eliminated the defending champion Toronto Raptors in seven tough games, and Boston ousted the overall top-seeded Bucks, in seven. They play game three tonight, two days after the Celtics held a loud and resounding conversation following the game two loss.
At University of Kentucky, Davis was an All-America who came to play in his own quiet way and avoided controversaries. He has been the same in pro ball.
“If I can help us win the championship,” he said, “I will feel great. Tonight, LeBron passed the ball around, found me enough times, and I was able to have another big game. He’s the man and I have great respect for him.”
The Lakers also picked up double figures from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored 18, and Dwight Howard, who added 13, and Kyle Kusma, who tallied 11. Pope and Howard didn’t play much in the conference semifinals against the small-ball Houston Rockets, but against a taller Denver team, they both played and performed well, as did Kuzma.
It was also defense solid defense applied in shutting down high-scoring 7-foot Nikola Jokic and 6-4 guard Jamal Murray. The two combined for 21 points apiece, well below their averages, and the Nuggets were forced into 16 turnovers. In addition, Jokic was not his usual self in tossing in shots from outside and driving to the basket. And he only brought down six rebounds and was able to dish out only a pair of assists. And Murray, who had back-to-back 50-point games against Utah, grabbed but one board but his five assists were a team high.
Rookie Michael Porter, Jr., scored 14 for Denver, had the team-high 10 rebounds, and handed out four assists. The Nuggets were out boarded 37-34, out assisted, 33-23, were out blocked, 6-2, by and had three steals while LA came away with 3. In 3s, they made 9-of-26, and shot 73 percent from the foul line, while the Lakers made 11-of-26 from the 3.
Game two is Sunday.