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Nuggets know their defense must be better to defeat Lakers

Three years after Kentavious Caldwell-Pope won an NBA championship by witnessing the full range of what LeBron James could do, he is now one game closer to reaching another NBA Finals in part because of the heroics of his newest superstar teammate, Nikola Jokic.

The two-time most valuable player scored 34 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and dished 14 assists in Denver’s Western Conference finals Game 1 win against the Lakers on Tuesday night.

“I feel like the only difference is Bron can jump higher than Jokic,” Caldwell-Pope, the guard in his first season with the Nuggets, told reporters in Denver after the victory. “That’s about the only difference that I can see.”

Jokic finished the first quarter with eight points, five assists and 12 rebounds — twice as many boards as all the Lakers combined. A 30-point, 20-rebound triple-double in the postseason has happened only four times. Wilt Chamberlain (1967) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970) account for two of them. Jokic now owns two.

And yet Denver escaped with only a six-point win after leading by as many as 21 because of the Lakers’ success blunting Jokic’s effectiveness. After Anthony Davis earned the defensive assignment against Jokic to start, Rui Hachimura eventually took over in the second half. On 50 possessions when guarded by Davis in Game 1, Jokic made eight of 10 shots and recorded 11 assists with just one turnover while Denver scored a scorching 76 points.

On 17 possessions when guarded by Hachimura, Denver scored 14 points, with Jokic shooting one for three with three turnovers, according to NBA tracking data.

“We saw it before,” Jokic said of the Lakers trying an oversized lineup featuring James, Hachimura and Davis. “We saw it against Minnesota, we saw it even in the end of season so we were just — I had a couple turnovers, I missed a shot, so I think it doesn’t surprise us but I think we’re going to figure it out because we did.”

On the other end, no one guarded Davis more often than Jokic, who drew the matchup on 59 possessions in which Davis shot 11 for 19 with no turnovers.

“He’s really, really talented. probably the most skilled guy if you think about the size and what he can do with the ball and how good a mid-range shooter he is and how he is attacking the glass,” Jokic said. “Probably one of the most talented players in the league.”

Lakers forward Anthony Davis, right, is defended by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Ball Arena on Tuesday in Denver.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The switch to Hachimura allowed the Lakers a way back into the game. And when they began making shots, the transition opportunities that were a key source of first-half points for Denver effectively dried up; after scoring 17 fast-break points in the first half, the Nuggets got only two after halftime.

“It became a half-court game, which is to their favor,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They have the No. 1 defense in the playoffs. So for us we have to continue to find ways to get pace into the game and not play against that set defense. They have tremendous size, length and athleticism.”

Utilizing that length helped the Lakers to compete and come back — and the Nuggets left Game 1 believing that will remain the case throughout the conference finals.

“Our defense has to be a hell of a lot better,” Malone said. “They shot 66% in that second half. They didn’t feel us, and they scored way too easy. We don’t want to get into trying to outscore teams and outlast teams.”

One area in which the Nuggets found success all game was limiting guard D’Angelo Russell, who made four of 11 shots and didn’t attempt a free throw, for eight points.

“I felt we did a great job on D’Angelo Russell — so great that he wasn’t even in the game much in the second half,” Malone said.

Asked about his comparison to James by Caldwell-Pope, Jokic gave a deadpan answer.

“That’s really offensive,” he said. “I’m joking. To be compared with one of the best ever or the best ever, I think it’s really cool. I don’t know. I think we don’t have a similar game. Maybe we have like a similar global game, if that makes any sense. We affect the game in different ways.”

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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