DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic recorded his sixth triple-double of these playoffs with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists, powering the Denver Nuggets to a 132-126 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the opener of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night.
Behind Jokic's sizzling start and strong finish, and Jamal Murray's 31 points, Denver beat the Lakers in the opener of the West finals for the first time ever.
After a slow start, Anthony Davis had 40 points and 10 rebounds, and LeBron James finished with 26 points, 12 boards and nine assists. Austin Reaves chipped in 23 points and fueled L.A.'s desperate fourth-quarter run that nearly erased Denver's 14-point cushion after three.
The Nuggets led by as many as 21 but the Lakers pulled within three points twice in the fourth quarter, once on Reaves' 3-pointer at 124-121 and again on James' pair of free throws that made it 129-126 with 1:12 remaining.
After Jokic sank two free throws with 26 seconds left to give Denver a 131-126 lead, Murray poked the ball from James as he was about to take it to the hoop and Jokic gathered the loose ball before being fouled with 10.9 seconds left. He sank one of two and James misfired from 3 as the seconds ticked off.
Game 2 is Thursday night at Ball Arena, where the top-seeded Nuggets are 7-0 in the playoffs and 41-7 overall, the best home record in the league this season.
Jokic said a day earlier that the Nuggets desperately needed to avoid following in the sneaker-steps of the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors, both of whom dropped their home opener to the Lakers and wound up losing in six games.
Moreover, James has won his last 20 playoff series in which his team has won the opener.
The Nuggets hadn't taken Game 1 against the Lakers since 1979, when they won the opener of the best-of-3 series only to lose the next two. That's the closest the Nuggets have ever come to eliminating the Lakers, who have beaten Denver three times in the West finals, including in the Florida bubble in 2020.
Flashing his MVP credentials in a stunning display of power in the first quarter, Jokic pulled down a dozen boards and dished out five assists to go with eight points. That made him the first player since at least 1997 to have a dozen or more boards and at least five assists in any quarter of an NBA playoff game.
The Lakers used an 11-2 run to cut the deficit to 11 points before Jokic responded with an off-balance 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Davis that barely fluttered the net at the buzzer, leaving Davis to trudge back to the bench in disbelief.
The "Joker," who missed out on his third consecutive NBA MVP award this year when he was edged by Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, had 19 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks by halftime as the Nuggets took a 72-54 lead into the locker room.
Jokic outrebounded the Lakers by himself 16-13 in the first half and the Nuggets beat L.A. in the opener of a playoff series for the first time in eight tries.
With 258 combined points, it was the highest-scoring conference finals game that didn't go to overtime since 1987, when Detroit beat Boston 145-119.
A malfunctioning shot clock was fixed and restored to its rightful place above the baskets in time for the second half. A malfunction forced officials to place a timer on both ends of the Ball Arena floor in the first half. It made for a different sort of gaze for James, Jokic and the rest of the players, who usually glance slightly up from where they're shooting to know how much time is left. In the first half, they had to look toward the right side of the baseline.
Lakers: L.A.'s only lead came on James' bucket to open the game. ... The Lakers lost to the Nuggets in the playoffs for just the ninth time in 34 tries. ... Los Angeles coach Darvin Ham lost a late challenge, the second one of the fourth quarter that took an inordinate amount of time for the officials to rule on.
Nuggets: Denver grabbed 20 of the first 23 rebounds in the game. ... The only player since 1997 to do what Jokic did in the first quarter was Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, who blitzed the Wizards for 12 rebounds and five assists in a regular-season game in October of 2012. ... The Nuggets called timeout just before the 10-minute mark in the fourth quarter and actually lost a point when it was determined a 3-pointer by Murray was actually a 2, cutting Denver's lead to 108-100.
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