Lakers blow big lead vs. Nuggets in Game 2: ‘We have stretches where we don’t know what we’re doing’

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DENVER — As time ticked away, and the game got closer, there was only one way that Game 2 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets could end.

For most of the game, the Lakers believed they were on the verge of snapping their nine-game losing streak to the Nuggets, overcoming their recent history and getting back into a series that only they truly think they have a chance in. After an Austin Reaves 3-pointer, they led 68-48 with 10:00 left in the third quarter.

But through a combination of fatigue, missed shots and stagnant offense, the Lakers only scored 31 more points from that point on. They didn’t bury the Nuggets. They couldn’t. And once Denver had an opportunity to snatch the game, they seized it, as they have done so many times before.

When Jamal Murray dribbled the ball up the floor, the crowd in Ball Arena rising to its feet and buzzing with anticipation, the inevitable and heartbreaking conclusion to Game 2 became clear. The Nuggets had gut-punched the  Lakers in various ways nine times prior. But never like this.

Murray ripped the Lakers’ hearts out with a 15-foot buzzer-beating fadeaway over Anthony Davis to seal the Nuggets’ 101-99 comeback victory. Denver now holds a commanding 2-0 series lead — and has won 10 straight games against Los Angeles. It’s unclear how much longer the Lakers will show life. Game 3 is Thursday in Los Angeles — the Lakers’ final chance to make this a series.

“We have stretches where we don’t know what we’re doing on both ends of the floor,” Davis said after the game. “Just got to get it right on Thursday.”

The Lakers’ pain was palpable postgame. Head coach Darvin Ham sat at the podium seething before going off on the officials for what he and the Lakers felt were several incorrect calls and non-calls. LeBron James remained calm until the end of his presser when he also called out the league’s replay center — at least the third time he’s done so this season. Anthony Davis ended his press conference with an angry mic drop when asked about what he saw on the final possession against Murray.

D’Angelo Russell took to X to call out an overturned foul call late in the third quarter.

The Lakers were rattled. As they should be after this type of loss — after 10 straight losses to Denver, with each one seemingly more painful and deflating than the previous one. At this point, it seems as if the Nuggets are merely torturing the Lakers, inventing new ways to embarrass them in high-stakes moments. And, given the context of this series and the past year-plus of Lakers-Nuggets matchups, it’s hard to find any silver lining or reason for optimism for the Lakers.

Game 1 was a missed opportunity. Game 2 felt like a death blow.

The Lakers needed to win one of these two games. Now, to win the series, they’ll have to pull off something they haven’t done in almost 500 days — beat Denver — and do so four times over the next five games, including at least once at Ball Arena.

That’s a tall task for any team to accomplish. The Lakers may get a game in Los Angeles, but it’s difficult to see them winning anything more than that. The Nuggets are just the better team. Their stars are better — at least when it matters most. The rest of their starters are better. Their bench is better. Their coaching and adjustments are better. They’re flat-out better than the Lakers.

To what degree they’re better is debatable. Six of these losses have gone into the clutch. The Lakers could’ve realistically won at least three or four of them. In an alternate universe, the Lakers are 3-7 or 4-6 against the Nuggets during this stretch, and it’s viewed less one-sided. But in this universe, the Nuggets have the Lakers’ number for the foreseeable future and there’s really nothing Los Angeles can do about it — at least not this season.

Game 2 began with such promise. Davis played one of the best halves of his career, scoring on the Nuggets at will and locking up Jokić, who he switched onto. A day after Davis was left off as a finalist for the NBA’s 2023-24 Defensive Player of the Year award, Davis not only showed why he should’ve been among the award finalists, but also why he’s simply one of the best players in the world.

Russell slayed his playoff demons, at least for one game, scoring 18 points in the first half, including making six 3s. He picked up right where he left off, taking the second-most shots behind only Davis. As a team, the Lakers made eight 3-pointers, tying their Game 1 total.

They led by 15 at halftime. They scored on three of their first four offensive possessions in the second half, stretching their lead to 20.

Then, everything fell apart.

“A 20-point lead in this league, it’s not safe, especially against the defending champion,” James said. “We’ve got to do better. But we had our chances.”

The Lakers had had a ton of success targeting Jokić, who was defending Davis, in pick-and-rolls. James was able to get downhill against him and either score, dish inside to Davis, or kick out to shooters. Denver eventually countered, switching Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from Russell onto James, Aaron Gordon from James onto Davis and Jokić from Davis onto Hachimura. The Lakers continued targeting Jokić with Hachimura as the screener, but it wasn’t as effective.

Over the final 22 minutes, the Lakers were outscored 53-31. They shot 36.4 percent and made only 12 shots. They had more turnovers (six) than assists (four). Their offense collapsed. Davis finished with 32 points, failing to score over the final 19 minutes, and 11 rebounds. Russell scored just five points in the second half, totaling 23 overall. James scored 16 of his 26 points in the second half, including 12 in the fourth quarter. He added eight rebounds and 12 assists.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets shot 53.8 percent and made 21 shots. They dominated the glass (23 to 15), only turned the ball over twice and outshot LA at the free-throw line (9-of-11 versus 3-of-5).

After missing 13 of his first 16 shots, Murray scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to finish with 20 points. Jokić posted a triple-double with 27 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists. The two combined for 15 points and 6-for-6 shooting over the final 4:25. Denver finished the game making all seven of its final field-goal attempts.

The Lakers tried switching the Jokić-Murray game with Davis and James in the final minute, but it didn’t worked. Nothing really has for the Lakers against those. They’re been unstoppable, especially in the biggest moments.

Now, facing a daunting deficit to an opponent brimming with confidence that no lead is safe against them, the Lakers are heading back to Los Angeles and trying to pick up the pieces. It’s unclear what adjustments they can make other than tightening their rotation — their bench has been invisible and outplayed by Denver’s — and continuing to tweak their coverages against Jokić. Davis and James should spend the entire game on him, however taxing that is. The Lakers will also need to come up with a counter to the Gordon-Jokić-Caldwell-Pope defensive adjustment.

In a vacuum, the Nuggets took care of business at home, and now the pressure has shifted to the Lakers to win their home games to even the series. But series aren’t played without context, and the context is that the Lakers have lost 10 straight times to the Nuggets and just had their heart ripped out.

Davis, the truth-teller of the locker room, expressed optimistic for Game 3 while simultaneously criticizing the team’s mental lapses at this stage of the season, an indictment of both Ham and his coaching staff and the players.

“We’ve shown that we’re more than capable,” Davis said. “We have stretches where we just don’t know what we’re doing on both ends of the floor. And those are the ones that cost us. So we have two days to get it right and come ready to win Game 3 on Thursday.”

James, who has played more games and minutes than any player in NBA history, has seen it all through his 21 seasons. He’s unfazed by the 2-0 deficit, which is an important first step toward mounting a series comeback.

But even James, arguably the game’s greatest player ever and thinker ever, admitted he’s still trying to figure out the seemingly unsolvable puzzle that is the Nuggets.

“Protect home,” James said of the mentality needed for a comeback. “That’s where my mindset goes. And obviously, the only game that matters now is Game 3 and how we can get better. How we can figure this team out.”

The Lakers are getting closer, which, if the recent history of this matchup is any indication, means that more heartbreak is likely around the corner.

 (Photo: AAron Ontiveroz/Getty Images)

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