The Denver Nuggets hosted the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night in a virtual must-win after dropping two in a row to Dallas and Cleveland. The Nuggets were without starting small forward Wilson Chandler, but the Lakers were particularly shorthanded and their young phenom Brandon Ingram was inactive as the Nuggets picked up the 125-116 win.

Before the game, Michael Malone stressed the importance of starting out strong. “We are 23-6 when we win the first quarter” Malone told the media at shootaround, and he identified a strong start as a key to victory against the Lakers. He also pointed out that the Lakers are one of the league’s best offensive teams in the paint–both points proved to be prescient as the first quarter unfolded.

The Lakers scored eight of their first 10 points in the paint as Nikola Jokic struggled to contain Brook Lopez and Julius Randle barreled his way into the paint as if he was a bull and the rim was painted a deep red. While the Nuggets struggled to generate stops, they also shot the lights out and once again unlocked that free flowing offense that has come and gone at various points throughout the season.

It was a balanced scoring effort for Denver in the first half as Jokic, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and most of the squad had it going on the offensive end. What was more encouraging than the actual production was the way in which those points came.

Jokic-ball made its glorious return as Jokic looked for his shot in the post until he drew help–and he knows exactly what to do when the help arrives. Denver generated good looks from deep thanks to some rare inside-out basketball and they led 37-28 after the strong first quarter that Dr. Malone had ordered.

Denver’s bench held their own to end the first quarter and to start the second as Devin Harris came alive again. After struggling for much of his time on the court since being traded to Denver, he has begun to find his form and he helped Denver push their lead to a game high 13. That wouldn’t last long though. Much to the surprise of Lakers and Nuggets fans alike, Travis Wear and Tyler Ennis engineered a strong push for the Lakers bench, which cut the lead all the way down to one.

The starters would check back in and Denver briefly stopped the bleeding before regaining control. But Julius Randle ignited a scoring burst for Los Angeles and the Lakers began to chip away at the lead. Los Angeles made another strong push to end the quarter and make it a game again. They’d outscore Denver 34-28 in the frame and the lead was down to just three at the half.

The third quarter featured more of the same as the Lakers big men torched Denver, and young Lonzo Ball came alive. Ball flashed his high IQ and his under-appreciated hustle as he crashed the boards, wreaked havoc on defense and finally put his finger prints on the game offensively. The Lakers continued to shoot the lights out, as they had all game to that point, while Denver suddenly went cold.

After a strong first half, the bench unit resorted to post up opportunities for Mason Plumlee, Trey Lyles and Juan Hernangomez–who made his first appearance since February 15th–that’s far from optimal offense for this Denver team and Nuggets fans held their breath as a crucial game began to tighten up. As the quarter came to a close, Denver’s lead had whittled away and Los Angeles took the lead for the first time since the opening minutes. The Lakers dropped 34 for the second straight frame and the Lakers led 96-93 in a game in which defense appeared to be optional.

The Nuggets have struggled to close out quarters and games all season long and the tension in the Pepsi Center was tangible as Denver’s playoffs hopes stood to take a mighty blow should they fail to mount a comeback. But they didn’t fail. Jamal Murray–who has quickly grown into public enemy number one for Lakers fans in the wake of his end-of-game dribble through the legs of Ball in the previous matchup–began to take the game personally, and he began to take the game over in the final 12.

As Murray poured it in, Millsap stepped up on the defensive end. It was a sight for sore eyes as Denver finally generated some stops down the stretch–something that the Nuggets have struggled with in his absence. The Nuggets avoided a monumental collapse and damning loss as they walked away with the 125-116 win.

Following the win, the Nuggets improve to 36-30 and 25-10 in the Pepsi Center. They’ll have the day off tomorrow before hosting the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. That game tips off at 3:00pm MT.