Lakers fade in second half during Game 1 loss to Nuggets

There are the technical elements of this first-round playoff series, such as the amount the Lakers can get into offensive sets, the right actions at the right times. There’s the defensive assignments, such as the decisions to blitz or to drop, to double or to hedge.

It can be complicated.

Or, like LeBron James said in New Orleans, after the rematch with Denver was set, it can be simple.

“We have to play mistake-free basketball,” James said.

Perfection, of course, isn’t possible. But for moments early in the first quarter Saturday night, the Lakers flirted with it.

James was transcendent, controlling all the action, while Anthony Davis made the most of the Nuggets’ suspect rim protection. Rui Hachimura hounded Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, slowing him some, while the Lakers’ guards doubled and recovered.

The work put the Lakers ahead by double figures, Denver coach Michael Malone calling a rage timeout with the Lakers up 14.

But in the big takeaway from a 114-103 Game 1 loss, the Lakers got a reminder. The mistakes they’re certain to make, they can’t stack. The miscues can’t be unforced. The Nuggets need no help.

And the Lakers, in the most important stretches, gave them some.

Turnovers fueled an 8-0 run that quickly shot the Nuggets back into the game before breakdowns on both ends of the court in the third quarter put the Lakers in a bad position, needing to climb a mountain in Denver against the defending champions.

While the Lakers pushed and the game stayed competitive into the final minutes of the fourth quarter, they were, once again, not mistake-free enough.

Davis scored 32 points but got beat in transition defense. James had 27 points but had seven turnovers. And the Lakers’ supporting cast missed too many shots too many times.

Jokic led Denver with 32 points.

Saturday night, the mistakes came in bunches. With the Lakers down seven, a Russell three-pointer rimmed in and out. The Nuggets caught the Lakers out of position on the way back down the court, made a three, and on the next possession got a steal on a lackadaisical James pass to make sure there’d be no late-game suspense.

It’ll be hard for the Lakers to leave the arena Saturday feeling like a team that’s merely down 1-0 in the series. The victory was Denver’s ninth straight against Ham’s Lakers, including last season’s Western Conference finals sweep.

In so many of those games, the script was familiar. The Nuggets would press and press against the Lakers until, eventually, the pressure would be too much and things would crumble.

Russell, the target of the Nuggets last spring, bounced back during a regular season when he set the Lakers’ mark for most threes made in a season, helping lead their turnaround this winter.

But redemption truly will be judged in this series, and he got off to the rockiest of starts, missing his first six threes before finally splashing one in the fourth.

He was hardly the only Laker to struggle from deep. The team made only eight of 29 three-pointers, the Nuggets hitting seven more threes.

Another series key, pushing the Nuggets off the offensive glass, went Denver’s way. On possessions when the Lakers got the shot they want or challenged one the Nuggets worked for, Jokic and Aaron Gordon were there to give them extra chances to deflate the Lakers’ defensive energy.

After the Lakers cut it to six in the fourth quarter, Denver got a pair of offensive rebounds before Jokic finally scored on their third attempt. A Gordon tip-in of his own miss while the Lakers stood watching was a fitting image near the final horn.

The Nuggets had 15 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points, killers against a Lakers team operating with very tight margins for error.

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