Throughout this postseason, rookie coach Darvin Ham and his Lakers staff have made the right choice at the right moment, finding the right game-plan tweak, the right rotation change, the right shift at the right moment.
They did with the way the Lakers defended Memphis in the first round. They did it with the way the Lakers chased Stephen Curry and quieted Klay Thompson against Golden State, and by plugging Lonnie Walker IV into the rotation in Game 4 and starting Dennis Schroder in Game 6 to dethrone the defending champions.
The moment never seemed too big, the Lakers’ Xs and O’s getting A’s.
Ahead of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Denver, Ham faced another choice — stick with Schroder in the starting lineup, return to Jarred Vanderbilt or find some magic elsewhere.
Ham and the Lakers landed on Schroder. And, in the most glaring way so far this postseason, they were wrong.
They had their reasons — the smaller three-guard lineup helped the Lakers close out the Warriors last week. Tuesday, though, it flopped. They couldn’t do enough early, either too small or too slow — and usually, a combination of both.
The Lakers would adjust. They’d go bigger. They’d play harder. They’d get closer. But never close enough.
The Nuggets and Nikola Jokic were too big, too tough on the glass for the first five on the court, immediately controlling the game en route to a 132-126 win thanks to a start that created a mountain too steep for the Lakers to completely climb.
“Some of them was effort,” LeBron James said of the plays that swung the momentum. “And some of them is about size.”
Jokic finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, his sixth triple-double of the postseason. Anthony Davis scored 40, James had 26 and Austin Reaves added 23, but it wasn’t quite enough to bring the Lakers back from the double-digit deficit they faced for most of the night.
Denver had offensive rebounds on nine of its first 11 missed shots, Jokic swallowing up seemingly every available board. By the time the Lakers made their first substitution, they were down 24-14. Denver had seven of its 15 offensive rebounds in that stretch.
“It’s not even a size factor. It’s a mobility factor,” Ham said when asked about the start. “Meaning, like bodies, we had guys, multiple bodies just standing around. No one is seeking out a hit. No one is…one person getting a hit, one person selling out, going after the basketball. A couple of times, the ball just dropped to the ground and someone swooped in from their team and grabbed it.”
Forget second-chance points, Denver was getting third, fourth and fifth chances.
“I really think it was just effort,” Reaves added.
It energized the Nuggets, who sprinted from the start, making the Lakers look slow while the court signs in the stands and the Nuggets’ public address announcer constantly reminding the Lakers they were 5,280 feet above sea level.
“We’ve got to come out running after makes and misses pushing the pace right at them,” Ham said.
Instead, their lungs were burning as they watched the Nuggets dictate the tempo.
The lead grew as large as 21 midway through the third quarter before the Lakers started to close the gap thanks to an in-game adjustment from Ham that worked.
Playing Rui Hachimura over D’Angelo Russell in the second half gave the Lakers life, the team showing it could score on the Nuggets at the rim, but the early deficit was too large.
“The first half was really ugly,” Reaves said. “…We got it going in the second half and really just played harder.”
Hachimura matched up with Jokic late, allowing Davis to shade off Denver’s Aaron Gordon while attacking the rim on the other end. Hachimura scored 17 off the bench. Russell finished the game a minus-25.
The Lakers’ best moments offensively were good enough that there should be reason for optimism. James hunted mismatches and attacked them with consistent force. Davis was able to get to his spots and got met with only sporadic challenges in the paint.
The Lakers matched the Nuggets’ hot shooting from the field and three-point range and committed only seven turnovers.
But when the Lakers looked like their moment had arrived, Jokic was there to steal it.
With the Lakers having scored six straight points on an 11-2 run to keep a blowout from engulfing them, Jokic rambled up the court, dribbling right at Davis. Davis swarmed him, perfect defense, forcing Jokic into a bit of a retreat, when in one motion the Denver big man and two-time most valuable player launched a 28-footer that somehow swished through the net at the third-quarter buzzer.
Great defense, better offense, and all Davis could do was smile.
“He’s very skilled,” Davis said. “That shot … there’s nothing else I could’ve done.”
Denver’s superb shot-making, whether it was Jokic, Jamal Murray or former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, gave the Nuggets just enough cushion to hold off the Lakers, who just didn’t have enough left late.
Murray scored 31, Caldwell-Pope scored 21 and three others role players finished in double figures.
“They were just making some shots with hands in their faces, bodies on bodies,” James said.
James’ top-of-the-key three-point shot in the final minute would’ve tied the game, but it didn’t fall, his fourth miss in as many tries from deep. Jokic made three free throws to ice the win.
The Lakers now trail in a series for the first time this postseason.
After winning Game 1 in Memphis and San Francisco, Ham reminded his team the race is to four wins, not one.
After losing, the message didn’t change.
“There’s no doubt in my mind when we come out for Game 2, we’ll be ready. We’ll go back and do what we need to do for our team physically. Start the recovery process now. Break down the film. Watch what we need to watch,” Ham said. “Thank God it’s the best of seven and it’s not the NCAA tournament, you know. It’s the first to four. We’ll be OK, trust me.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.