The Lakers were ready to steal it.
LeBron James gave it back.
The Lakers were rolling, the Denver Nuggets were panicking, and the opener of the Western Conference finals at Ball Arena was about to be spun on its head.
Then James lost his mind, or his legs, or both.
It was a valiant effort that should have been rewarded with a stirring victory that should inspire.
It was, instead, a painful failure that could haunt.
After nearly overcoming a 21-point deficit in a comeback that had the crowd cursing and gasping, the Lakers climbed on the back of their greatest player in the final minutes of Tuesday night … and he collapsed, leading to a 132-126 defeat that digs the Lakers a hole for the first time this postseason.
The Nuggets’ series lead is only one game to none, but this throws a wrench into the Lakers’ pattern of winning the first road game in each of their previous two series.
This is new territory. This is strange territory.
Given how the Nuggets dominated for much of this opener, this is unsettling territory. Judging how it ended, and who was in the middle of that, this is downright scary territory.
With 45 seconds remaining and the Lakers having closed the gap to three, James had the ball in his hands and time on the shot clock, and he promptly jacked it up. Despite missing both of his previous three-pointers, James threw up a trey that bounced away.
Two Nikola Jokic free throws later, the Lakers were still in the game with 18 seconds left when James had the ball in his hands again. This time he just lost it, watching it get stripped by Jokic as James stood still in disgust.
James finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds, and was mostly big down the stretch but still, there were questions.
Why did he so hurriedly take that three-pointer when he could have driven to the basket and almost assuredly been fouled and perhaps turned it into a three-point play? Or, if he was insistent on a trey, why not give that shot to, say, hot Austin Reaves?
As for that final turnover, well, he just appeared tired and off balance and made a human mistake.
But those were two errors that cost the Lakers a chance at essentially killing the Nuggets’ spirit. They will play Game 2 here Thursday night. They will need to quickly forget this one that got away.
“Thank God it’s the best of seven and it’s not the NCAA tournament, you know,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “It’s the first to four. We’ll be OK, trust me.”
Ham was asked about that ill-advised James shot. He strongly defended his superstar.
“Took a shot that he’s made I don’t know how many times,” Ham said. “We are talking about the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. I have confidence in him. It always can be argued, OK, is this the right shot to take now, but if he hits it, we’re not having this discussion. So I want all my players to be confident and he is definitely confident at the top of that list and I trust his feel.”
Ham said James could have taken even more than his 16 shots, but he said he’s not complaining.
“There’s times we wanted him to take certain shots and he didn’t take them, and we find something better on the back side or underneath, if they are trying to force him a certain direction or double-team him late or whatever,” Ham said. “He definitely has my trust in all of those regards.”
There has been talk throughout this postseason that the every-other-day schedule finally would take its toll on the 38-year-old James. Maybe Tuesday night was an example of that. Or maybe he was just generally flustered by a relentless Nuggets attack that could have easily resulted in a 30-point Denver win.
For most of the game in this mile-high city, it wasn’t the altitude, it was the attitude.
The Lakers were mostly knocked breathless. For more than three quarters they were run over not by the thin-air scare tactic that decorates Ball Arena — the 5,280-feet altitude is printed on the foul line, for goodness’ sake — but by the heavies that decorate the Nuggets.
“It took us a half to get into the game and that was pretty much the ballgame right there,” James said. “We have to understand that we have to start from the tipoff, and they punched us in the mouth to start.”
The jabs were everywhere. They couldn’t stop the wondrous Jokic, who scored 34 points with 21 rebounds and 14 assists. They couldn’t slow the fearless Jamal Murray, who dropped 31. They were outrebounded, outscored in the paint, fell short on second-chance points and lost an important loose ball in the final minutes that led to a fastbreak, ally-oop dunk by Aaron Gordon.
“Too many possessions where we had bodies in the vicinity of the rebound but just never put a body on their body or went, just made a deliberate attempt to go grab the ball,” Ham said.
The game was typified by a moment at the end of the third quarter when, with the Lakers beginning their comeback, Jokic threw up a 28-footer with Anthony Davis in his face.
Swish. Roar. Disbelief.
Davis smiled and looked at Jokic like, “How did you really just do that?”
Jokic shrugged and spread his arms like, “I have no idea.”
Did the Nuggets really just do this? And can the Lakers figure out how to deal with it?
It seemed like the Lakers finally found some answers in that fourth quarter, when they put Rui Hachimura on Jokic and let Davis roam free while guarding Gordon and it worked. They outscored the Nuggets by eight and Davis, who finished with 40 points and 10 rebounds, finally played with a defensive freedom.
Jokic didn’t make a shot in that fourth quarter, and the Lakers dominated them inside, and this was going to be a victory for the ages …
Until it wasn’t.
“In the postseason it doesn’t matter if you cut it to one or you’re down 20, if you lose, you lose,” James said. “They are 1-0 and we have to come back with desperation going into Game 2. We have to play better, we have to rebound better.”
Lakers fans can take heart that their team didn’t give up. But this series is going to be about more than just heart. It’s about heat, and the temperature is only going to rise.
The atmosphere here was so suffocating, Jokic wiped his head with his shooting shirt during the national anthem.
The initial boos were so loud, you couldn’t hear the Lakers introduced.
The Nuggets may brag about their mountains, but they are trying to scale one here.
The Lakers have played the Nuggets in seven previous postseason series and won all of them. The Lakers’ record against the Nuggets during that time was 25-8.
The Lakers scared the history out of them.
But in the end, it didn’t matter.
“The common denominator at the end of everything was, we went out and competed in the second half and gave ourselves a chance,” said Reaves, who scored 11 in the final quarter. “Never want to lose, but this is a series for a reason.”
A series in which the Lakers trail.
As strange as the stumble of a king.
This story originally appeared on LA Times