Nuggets play sloppy, but grind out win over Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) battles Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) under the basket in the first half at Staples Center.
Oct 2, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) battles Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) under the basket in the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets came into Staples Center knowing that it would be as hostile of an environment for a preseason game as it gets. It was LeBron James’ debut at Staples Center, the fans were losing their minds, and Denver had been on the road for eight days up until this point. From the get-go, it looked like Denver was exhausted. Just to add to Denver’s issues, Nuggets’ starting point guard Jamal Murray was a late scratch from the game with an ankle injury forcing Monte Morris into the starting lineup. Without Gary Harris and Murray, the Nuggets struggled to space the floor.

Denver started the game by going 0-8 from three-point distance in the first quarter and had six turnovers. Most of the Nuggets roster looked fatigued except for their two centers; Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee. Those two combined for 16 points on 6-6 shooting including going 4-4 from the free-throw line in the first quarter. From the second Plumlee hit the floor, he was impactful. He scored seven-straight points by virtue of a reverse dunk, lob dunk, and an incredibly difficult and-one finish. Plumlee provided instant energy and it helped keep the Nuggets above water when the going got tough.

While Denver was struggling, James was prospering. It was his first game in his new home arena and he wanted to make an impact from the start. He had an incredibly tough fallaway floater for his first bucket of the game before throwing down an obliterating dunk after Paul Millsap failed to slow him down in transition. By the end of the first quarter, Denver trailed Los Angeles 33-26.

The Nuggets bench unit dug in defensively during the second quarter forcing the Lakers to go 2-10 in the first six minutes of the frame. While Denver’s offense continued to struggle, they still managed to slowly chip away at their deficit. Unfortunately, by the time that halftime came around, Denver found themselves down 59-48 after one of the sloppiest halves of basketball Denver has played in quite some time.

The third quarter was much of the same. Denver was sloppy and couldn’t hit a a shot as the Lakers stayed on the accelerator. Denver had a quick moment of execution, but it faded rapidly. As things were in the first quarter, Jokic was strong and everyone else was not. Thankfully, the Lakers began playing just as sloppy as Denver and their lead dissipated quickly.

Once Jokic finished his first stint of the second half, his night was over. He accumulated 20 points, six rebounds, four assists, one steal, and three turnovers while shooting 7-10 from the field and 2-2 from three-point distance. He was easily Denver’s best player of the night because the rest of the starting unit, not including Jokic, shot a combined 9-38 from the field and 4-17 from three-point distance. It was clear that Denver was exhausted.

By the time that the fourth and final quarter arrived, Denver was training 84-77, but were struggling in many facets. Malone had emptied the bench and the remainder of the game was up to the reserves. The bench unit — led by Plumlee and Trey Lyles — fought valiantly throughout the final quarter of play and they eventually took a lead. Plumlee was eventually pulled to allow Thomas Welsh to close, but not before scoring 23 points while shooting 11-11 from the field. Lyles finished with 12 points, five rebounds, six assists, and two steals.

The Lakers — led by Lance Stephenson — regained the lead late in the fourth, but Denver fought back thanks to Thomas Welsh and Malik Beasley. Beasley finished with 15 points, two rebounds, and three assists while 3-6 shots from three-point distance.

By the time the final buzzer sounded, Denver managed to grind out a 113-111 win over the Lakers after beating them two days earlier. The Nuggets now head back to Denver where they will have two days off before taking on the Perth Wildcats on Friday at the Pepsi Center with a perfect 2-0 record in two games against the Lakers.