DENVER—Denver Nuggets guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers the last time these teams met in the Western Conference finals in the 2020 National Basketball Association (NBA) bubble.
So, what similarities does he see between LeBron James and Nikola Jokic?
“I feel like the only difference is Bron can jump higher than Jokic,” Caldwell-Pope declared after Jokic’s monster performance fueled the Nuggets’ 132-126 win in Game 1 Tuesday night.
“That’s really offensive,” Jokic replied in faux indignation about his athletic abilities. “I’m joking. I mean, to be compared to one of the best ever—or THE best ever — I think is really cool.”
Jokic doesn’t really see many similarities in their play: “We affect the game in different ways,” Jokic said. “But he’s a really good player.”
Nobody was better than Jokic on Tuesday night.
Jokic recorded his sixth triple-double of these playoffs with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, powering the Nuggets to a 1-0 lead in the series.
Behind Jokic’s sizzling start and strong finish, and Jamal Murray’s 31 points while battling an ear infection, Denver beat the Lakers in the opener of the West finals for the first time ever.
After a slow start, Anthony Davis had 40 points and 10 rebounds, and James finished with 26 points, 12 boards and nine assists. Austin Reaves chipped in 23 points and fueled L.A.’s desperate fourth-quarter run that nearly erased Denver’s 14-point cushion after three.
Caldwell-Pope scored 21 points against his former team. Michael Porter Jr. had 15 points and 10 boards and Bruce Brown added 16 points.
The Nuggets led by as many as 21 but the Lakers pulled within three points twice in the fourth quarter, once on Reaves’ 3-pointer at 124-121 and again on James’ pair of free throws that made it 129-126 with 1:12 remaining.
“Yeah, it took us a half to get into the game,” James said, “and that was pretty much the ballgame right there. They punched us in the mouth to start. … I know the game is won in 48 minutes, but they set the tone in 24 minutes and we were playing catch-up for the next 24.”
In the fourth quarter, Rui Hachimura guarded Jokic, allowing Davis to crowd the paint and make things harder for the Nuggets big man to dominate the paint. But it wasn’t enough.
After Jokic sank two free throws with 26 seconds left to give Denver a 131-126 lead, Murray poked the ball from James as he was about to take it to the hoop and Jokic gathered the loose ball before being fouled with 10.9 seconds left. He sank one of two and James misfired from 3 as the seconds ticked off.
“I’d rather clean things up after a win in the Western Conference finals than after a loss, so I will take it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But much work to do.”
Game 2 is Thursday night at Ball Arena, where the top-seeded Nuggets are 7-0 in the playoffs and 41-7 overall, the best home record in the league this season.
Jokic said a day earlier that the Nuggets desperately needed to avoid following in the sneaker-steps of the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, both of whom dropped their home opener to the Lakers and wound up losing in six games.
Moreover, James has won his last 20 playoff series in which his team has won the opener.
The Nuggets hadn’t taken Game 1 against the Lakers since 1979, when they won the opener of the best-of-three series only to lose the next two. That’s the closest the Nuggets have ever come to eliminating the Lakers, who have beaten Denver three times in the West finals, including in the Florida bubble in 2020.
Flashing his MVP credentials in a stunning display of power in the first quarter, Jokic pulled down a dozen boards and dished out five assists to go with eight points. That made him the first player since at least 1997 to have a dozen or more boards and at least five assists in any quarter of an NBA playoff game.
The Lakers used an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to 11 points before Jokic responded with a jaw-dropping 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Davis that barely fluttered the net at the buzzer, leaving Davis to trudge back to the bench in disbelief.
“Sometimes luck is on our side,” Jokic said. “It’s a crazy shot, of course.”
The “Joker,” who missed out on his third consecutive NBA MVP award this year when he was edged by Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, had 19 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks by halftime as the Nuggets took a 72-54 lead into the locker room.
“Thank God it’s the best-of-seven and it’s not the NCAA Tournament,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s the first to four. We’ll be OK, trust me.”
Image credits: AP