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The Nuggets Own The Lakers

Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets shoots the ball during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 2, 2024 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California.
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

On a night when LeBron James became the first NBA player to score 40,000 career points, the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Denver Nuggets. Both parts of that sentence should have been expected heading into Saturday night's game. On LeBron's side, he came into the game with 39,991 points, just nine away from the milestone. He got it in style, too, driving into the paint and muscling Michael Porter Jr. out of the way for a smooth layup, the kind he has done hundreds if not thousands of times in his career.

The other side of that opening sentence is a more pressing issue for LeBron and Co., however. Before Saturday, the Nuggets had won seven straight against Los Angeles, including a tight but ultimately one-sided sweep in the Western Conference Finals last season. At the start of Saturday's game, it looked like the Lakers would be able to throw that boogeyman into a well. Rui Hachimura and D'Angelo Russell came out hot, helping the Lakers to a 33-27 first quarter lead, and then a 66-58 halftime advantage.

Unfortunately, the Nuggets did what they often do, and what they have been especially adept at doing against L.A. in recent matchups. In the third, the Denver defense put clamps on the Lakers, forcing them into contested shots and pull-up three-pointers. For the quarter, the Lakers only managed 23 points, while the Nuggets offense hummed for 31 points, taking the lead with about three-and-a-half minutes left in the third (their first lead since the score was 4-2). It was, of course, Nikola Jokic who led the charge, dropping 13 of his 35 points in the third, including one of his goofy fadeaways that arced high and in off the glass.

Credit to the Lakers for fighting back after losing the lead and tying things up at 89 heading into the fourth. But on a night that started so well, the leveled score at the end of the third was the last bit of good news the home team would receive. In the fourth, Denver shot 68 percent from the field and held the Lakers to just 25 points. A 9-0 run put the game away (the Lakers were up 110-108 with just over four minutes to go; after the run, it was 117-110 Denver with two minutes left), and highlighted the difference between these two teams, one of which is a legitimate title contender once again, while the other is only in that conversation out of deference to LeBron himself.

I'm not the only one to notice how much better Denver looks at this moment in time than the Lakers; the Lakers themselves seemed to realize it on Saturday. In the Los Angeles Times, Dan Woike writes that the L.A. locker room was demoralized after the game, thanks to a widening talent gap between the defending champions and last season's Western Conference runners-up. Anthony Davis sounded resigned to his team's fate, especially as it comes to crunch time: "We’re getting closer as far as the first, I guess, 42 minutes or you can even say 44 minutes, right? And then that last four minutes is just them getting to what they get to. And they make us pay for our mistakes, like I said."

The numbers, as laid out by Woike, are damning: Denver has outscored the Lakers by 19 in the fourth quarters of their three games this season, and in the last two, the Nuggets have only missed once while in the aforementioned "crunch time" (defined by the game being within five points in the fourth). Jokic has only missed two of his nine shots in the fourth quarter against the Lakers this season; Aaron Gordon and Porter Jr. are shooting 75 percent from the field in that same time period. Whatever positives the Lakers have entering the final stretch of games against the Nuggets seem to fade away in a relentless barrage of Denver shooting.

LeBron might have reached that points milestone, but 40,000 wasn't the number he was worried about after the game: "They have our number," he said. They sure do, and that number is four—as in the quarter, as in the time when Denver shows why it won the NBA title last season, why it plowed through the Lakers in four games on the way to the Finals, and why there's no reason to expect anything different should the two meet again in the playoffs later this year.

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