The bet the Lakers made at the NBA’s trade deadline in early February was the same one they made in summer 2019 when they basically traded everything to form one of the NBA’s most talented duos.
That gamble, which has paid out a title and busted under repeated injuries, was that as long as the Lakers had Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the court when the games mattered most, they’d have a shot.
It’s why the Lakers remade their roster, rebuilt their depth, added more scoring and defending and playmaking. It’s why they were even here Thursday in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
But with the crowd waving white towels, chanting “Beat L.A.” and fueling the top-seeded Nuggets through a fourth-quarter comeback, it wasn’t because James and Davis didn’t have enough help.
No, the Lakers lost 108-103 largely because Davis and James couldn’t help themselves, the Nuggets storming back while the Lakers got buried under a wave of momentum they couldn’t stop.
When the Lakers needed to get to the rim to help build cushion against Denver’s surge, James opened the fourth quarter with missed back-to-back threes. He still hasn’t hit one this series and hasn’t made one in the fourth quarter since Game 1 against Memphis.
“He can shoot all he wants,” Austin Reaves said. “He’s LeBron James. … All he wants to do is win.”
James scored 22 on 19 attempts, missing all six of his threes. Davis had 18 on four-of-15 shooting. Reaves scored 22, and Rui Hachimura added 21 off the bench.
“If you’re not tired in the postseason …” James said. “Everyone’s tired.”
Exhausted from their combined efforts on Nikola Jokic on one end, the Lakers’ two biggest stars weren’t close to the aggressive, rim-hunting combination that nearly stole the Lakers Game 1. They floundered in the biggest moments of Game 2.
“We missed some pretty good looks,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after the loss.
Mental errors. Missed shots. Heavy legs. The two players the Lakers needed most made too many mistakes as Denver came back to hold on to home-court advantage,
The Nuggets have not lost a playoff game at Ball Arena this postseason, Denver hitting seven-of-13 in the fourth including five straight threes.
Some of the errors were more subtle — Dennis Schroder forcing up a three with eight seconds left in the third quarter instead of holding for the final shot. The three got blocked, Denver ran in transition and scored on an offensive putback from Jokic that Davis goaltended.
Some were head-scratching, like James turning a sure two points in transition into a turnover as he fumbled away the ball while trying to uncork a two-handed reverse dunk.
“That sucks that ball squirted out of my hands,” James said. “ … Unforced turnover. Horrible.”
And Davis couldn’t get to the easy buckets that have put him into rhythm for so much of the playoffs, half of his damage coming from the free-throw line.
“You can go through the course of a basketball game and you have unfortunate plays that happen. I’m sure they can pick out some from their side,” Ham said postgame. “So, it was just — you have to just have things happen during the course of an NBA game, especially a hotly contested one such as the Western Conference finals, in particular these two teams.
“So you just got to have a short memory in terms of the mistake happens or a miscue or something like that, you got to move on.”
Even with the Lakers’ stars struggling, they were in position to win before Jamal Murray caught fire in the fourth, his shooting knocking the lid off the rim for his teammates.
Denver made seven threes in the fourth. The Lakers made just eight all game. “They made shots when they needed to,” Reaves said.
Murray finished with 37, 23 coming in the fourth quarter. Jokic, for the second game in the series, finished with a triple-double scoring 23 to go with 17 rebounds and 12 assists.
“We all know one thing about Jamal, man. He just has to see one go in. He got a little mid-range pull-up to go in, kind of looked up to the heavens and that’s all he needs,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “After that, he’s shooting into a hula hoop.”
The Lakers, after almost two days of speculation, did indeed make a starting lineup change. The Lakers reinserted forward Jarred Vanderbilt into the first five after Schroder replaced him in the last two games. Ham had been purposefully coy with his decision, declining to discuss his choice with any specificity following the Game 1 loss. There was speculation Hachimura would start after his strong second half in Game 1, but Ham decided to use the group that started the first 11 playoff games for his team.
Vanderbilt opened the game on Murray, one of the Game 1 stars for the Nuggets, and his length and rebounding helped the Lakers set the game at their preferred tempo.
Shooting, though, was an issue — especially for Davis. He failed to build on a dominant 40-point Game 1 performance, his shots either not falling or not counting after his first made bucket was called an offensive goaltend. “I got the same looks,” Davis said.
Thankfully the Lakers had Hachimura off the bench, the midseason acquisition continuing to make Denver pay for its lack of rim protection by going right to the basket on almost every touch. Hachimura didn’t a miss until the second half, his 17 points coming on seven shots
It resulted in the Lakers building an 11-point first half lead that could’ve certainly been more had it not been for a few uncharacteristic errors.
Denver hung around and hung around, despite repeated double-digit leads for the Lakers that extended into the third quarter. But it felt like they should’ve been up more, the moments for easy points in front of them, and the ball too often fumbled away.
And while the Lakers struggled, Denver roared, no one louder than their coach.
Pregame, he chastised anyone for thinking the series was over after the Lakers’ made their comeback in the second half. And postgame, he doubled down, his team now up 2-0.
“You win Game 1 of the playoffs and all everybody talked about was the Lakers. Let’s be honest, that’s what the national narrative was, ‘Hey the Lakers are fine, they’re down 1-0 but they figured something out,’” Malone said. “No one talked about Nikola set a historic performance.
“He has 13 triple-doubles now, third all-time. What he’s doing is just incredible but the narrative wasn’t about the Nuggets, the narrative wasn’t about Nikola, the narrative was about the Lakers and their adjustments.
“So, you put that in your pipe, you smoke it and you comeback and you know what, we’re going to go up 2-0.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.