In what might be the most emotional loss of the season, the Denver Nuggets are now down 2-0 in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers after Anthony Davis hit a stunning buzzer-beating three to lift the Lakers 105-103 over the Nuggets. It’s difficult to parse what to think right now, but let’s try and figure it out.
My five takeaways from tonight’s game:
Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic come up clutch again and again
It really came down to the old adage “last shot wins” between these two superstars, as neither could stop the other down the stretch and it just so happened that the Lakers got the last look.
It’s not difficult to see where the breakdown occurred, and it’s unlikely that Paul Millsap would have made this catastrophic defensive error, though he was off the floor after the defensive substitution.
Still, it shouldn’t take anything away from the incredible shotmaking of both Davis and Jokic. Davis scored 10 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, including the two threes on the left wing that were absolutely back-breaking shots. Jokic scored 11 points in the final five minutes himself, from a Sombor Shuffle closely guarded by Alex Caruso to a post hook in which he backed Davis under the rim with 20 seconds to go in the game for the lead.
Both were exceptional down the stretch, and it’s awful that the Nuggets were on the other end of the knockout blow.
The Lakers won on the margins
The Nuggets did a great job in so many areas. Defensively, they shut down the paint, allowing just 34 points in an areas where they allowed nearly 60 in Game 1. Unfortunately, they allowed enough second chance points to make up the difference due to the 13 offensive rebounds given up, and the game was close at the end because Rajon Rondo hit a pull-up three and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a three while deep in the corner with a low shot clock.
It’s clear that at their best, the Nuggets have the capability to win games against this Lakers team. They don’t have to be perfect, but they have to win on the margins in ways they haven’t in the past. Paul Millsap can’t dribble into traffic on consecutive possessions and give up fast breaks on the other end. PJ Dozier can’t miss four free throws. Mason Plumlee can’t call for a switch when Jerami Grant isn’t looking. And so on. To see the Nuggets be THAT close and lose because they missed out on the margins is incredibly painful.
PJ Dozier made some incredible plays, but the free throw misses were killer
If you told me PJ Dozier played 14 minutes for the Nuggets in Game 2, I would have asked whether Denver was getting blown out by the third quarter or if there was an injury to Jamal Murray or Monte Morris.
Instead, it was a substitution made by Michael Malone that looked like a stroke of genius at various points throughout the fourth quarter. Dozier was an animal on the defensive side of the floor, playing passing lanes, rotating hard, stepping in to take charges, and doing everything he could to will the Nuggets back into this game. He even made some plays for himself and others down the stretch, from a lob dunk to Mason Plumlee to an And-1 he converted over Anthony Davis.
Unfortunately, the game comes down to the margins sometimes, and Dozier missing four free throws in the fourth quarter of a two-point loss feels like a major inflection point. If Dozier goes 5-of-5 instead of 1-of-5, it’s possible the Lakers aren’t in position to make a play at the buzzer. Even if he goes 3-of-5, the entire plan changes for the Nuggets guarding the last possession of the game.
There are several what-ifs to be had, but I was glad to see Dozier on the floor making plays. He’s clearly very good and has a place in the rotation at some point. Additional experience in big game moments will help calm his nerves going forward.
Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.kept Denver in the game offensively
It wasn’t just Nikola Jokic out on the floor tonight for Denver. Their young trio if offensive stars/rising stars all came to play with some incredible shots under pressure. Jamal Murray had 25 points and four assists tonight. He was 8-of-19 from the field but had to fight for every single basket while being hounded by Lakers guards and bigs, generally at the same time.
Michael Porter Jr. had 15 points while shooting 6-of-9 from the field and 2-of-4 from three off the bench tonight. There were several possessions in which the Nuggets didn’t have a great option late in the shot clock, and true to form, Porter received the ball in those situations and hit some highly contested looks. From a face-up possession against Rajon Rondo to the three-point basket below versus LeBron James, Porter clearly had it going tonight.
How can the Nuggets come back from this one?
The Nuggets have such a small margin for error that with the victory well within their grasp late in this game, losing and going down 2-0 in the series is that much more painful.
The resilience of this group is unwavering. It is genuinely their defining trait as a team with oodles of evidence to prove it in these playoffs. If any team can come back from such a demoralizing loss and win the next game, it’s this Nuggets group.
Unfortunately, this loss feels different to me. Remember when I said NuggLife was dead last Wednesday? It sure doesn’t seem like it following a come-from-behind effort only for the Lakers to deal the critical blow on a buzzer beater. That is about as NuggLife as one can possibly get.
Still, I have faith in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. They are true stars and will rise to the occasion to battle against this Lakers team. The only question is whether anyone on the roster will play well enough to make this a series.