Lakers experience déjà vu all over again in another loss to Nuggets: ‘They have our number’

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LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis leaned back in his chair and brooded over the question.

Does it feel like you guys are closer to getting over the hump with Denver, or does it feel like you guys are still trying to answer the same kinds of questions in the last few minutes of the game?

“Um,” a dejected Davis said before pausing to collect his thoughts.

His on-court body language 45 minutes earlier provided enough of a clue. When Denver reserve Justin Holiday nailed a corner 3-pointer, Davis chewed out teammate Austin Reaves for leaving Holiday to help on a cutting Aaron Gordon. When Gordon, a 29-percent 3-point shooter on the season, hit a go-ahead corner 3 over Davis, the Lakers’ star slumped his shoulders as he trotted slowly back on offense. And when a miscommunication with Cam Reddish led Davis to veer back toward Jokić and leave Murray wide open for a layup with a minute and a half left, Davis’ face held a blank expression as he turned to the bench.

So it was little surprise that Davis agreed with the latter premise of the question.

“In a sense,” he said. “Because they do the same thing. And they beat us with it every time. So yes we’re getting closer as far as the first, I guess, 42 minutes, or you can even say 44 minutes, right? And then that last four minutes is just them getting to what they get to.”

The Nuggets’ 124-114 win at Arena on Saturday was Denver’s eighth straight victory over Los Angeles, including the four in last season’s West finals. The final margin of each of those eight games has been within 12 points, and four have been decided by eight points or fewer. But the game script has largely remained unchanged. Regardless of how the first 42-to-44 minutes of the game go, the Nuggets inevitably eviscerate the Lakers in the clutch. On Saturday, Denver closed the game on a 19-6 run over the final 4:29 to drop the Lakers to 33-29 on the season and firmly in 10th in the West (they’re 0.5 games behind of the Golden State Warriors, but two back in the loss column).

For the Lakers, the worst part is they’re prepared for the ways Denver is going to attack them — or at least try to be.

Following the Nuggets’ 114-106 win over the Lakers on Feb. 8, Davis, speaking in the same auxiliary press room as he did Saturday, mentioned how Denver’s offense shifts in crunch time. The Nuggets, Davis said then, go to a “Peja (Stojakovic) action” within their lethal Jokić-Murray two-man game, which throws the Lakers off because Denver runs their offense differently before that point. Before Saturday’s game, head coach Darvin Ham said the Lakers prepared for those very actions and the various ways they could counter them.

But once crunch time arrived, and the unavoidable dread of the players and the home crowd in these Lakers-Nuggets matchups began to take hold, the Lakers were as unprepared as ever.

“The last couple minutes they get to their fourth-quarter package and we’re either over-helping or not helping enough,” Davis said. “And it seems like this team is the one who always makes us pay off our mistakes.”

The backdrop to the game was LeBron James becoming the first NBA player to reach the 40,000-point mark. He needed just nine points to reach that threshold and got there with a layup at the 10:39 mark of the second quarter. The Lakers played a video tribute for James in the following timeout, and he received a standing ovation and the game ball.

But just like the Nuggets spoiled the Kobe Bryant statue unveiling, they spoiled James’ latest honor. Losing in James’ scoring milestone games has become a trend for the Lakers. They lost last season when he passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer, and also lost when he passed Karl Malone (then No. 2) and Kobe Bryant (then No. 3).

“Obviously, I’m never thinking about a milestone when I’m out there battling,” James said. “And when it happens, obviously we acknowledge it and obviously much respect and much loyalty to the Laker fanbase for showing me that love during the timeout. Being the first player to do something that’s pretty cool in this league.”

“For me, the main thing is always the main thing, and that’s the win,” he continued. “I hated that it had to happen in the defeat, especially versus the team that plays extremely well. … So bittersweet but enjoyed every moment tonight on the floor.”

As Davis noted, this game was shaping up to finally be the Lakers’ breakthrough in this matchup.

D’Angelo Russell, who was played off the floor by Denver in the 2023 Western Conference finals and also struggled in Denver on opening night, had his best start in this matchup, scoring 13 points by the early portion of the second quarter on an efficient 5-of-8 shooting. Los Angeles shot 61.9 percent in the first quarter and 57.4 percent overall in the first half, with their starters carrying the group. James and Reaves dissected Denver’s defense in pick-and-rolls and transition, and Davis held his own against Jokić. The Lakers led by as many as 11 points and had an eight-point lead at halftime.

But things swiftly flipped in the second half. Russell scored just four points in the second half and shot 1-for-6 after his hot start. The Lakers’ offense gummed up. Davis became far less involved, only attempting two shots in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets methodically chipped away and then erased the lead in the third quarter, with Jokić and Murray combining for 21 of Denver’s 31 in the frame.

“It’s like pick-your-poison,” Davis said. “And they do a great job of making reads.”

The teams traded baskets for the first half of the fourth quarter, and then neither team scored for over a minute. By then, the tension in the arena was palpable. Lakers fans had seen this horror movie before, both last season and three weeks earlier. No lead felt safe. A Jokić moonball or Murray backbreaker was just around the corner.

The two teams go in opposite directions as the game wanes. Denver gets stronger, relying on two of the best closers in basketball and a rotating cast of role players empowered to optimize their specific strengths. Los Angeles, meanwhile, regresses and loses its composure, fumbling passes and dribbles, getting blocked and stripped at the rim and misreading basic defensive strategy in crucial moments.

On some level, the difference is Jokić and Murray consistently outplay James and Davis, especially late. Nuggets head coach Mike Malone also appears to push the right buttons, attacking the Lakers’ weakest defenders and using decoy actions to mask Denver’s true intentions.

The Lakers still don’t have a five-man lineup they trust against the Nuggets. They only have a core four (James, Davis, Reaves and Hachimura), as Ham, as he did in the West finals, left Russell on the bench in the fourth quarter due to his defensive limitations. The Lakers instead closed with Cam Reddish, but he barely bothered Murray and forced the Lakers to play 4-on-5 offensively.

Jokic, the best player in the world and a contender to win his third MVP, has earned an uncommon level of reverence from the Lakers. James, who praised the Nuggets by saying they always have “five threats on the floor,” admitted there is no way to slow down Jokić.

“Nah,” James said. “There is none.”

Ham, who hasn’t found a challenge he feels can’t be solved with more effort, offered a similar assessment.

“You’ve gotta fight as much as you can, as hard as you can and hope that he misses,” Ham said. “… You just gotta keep throwing stuff at them. Obviously, we won’t see them again this season, but it’s a good game to learn from. At some point, we’ll overcome what we’re going through with this team.”

That may be the only silver lining for the Lakers: The next time they’ll have to see the seemingly unsolvable Nuggets is in the playoffs or next season. The Lakers have beaten the Clippers, Thunder, Suns, Mavericks, Pelicans and Warriors this season. They’ve gone down to the wire with the Timberwolves and Kings. They’re confident they can beat any team in the West.

Except Denver.

As James said afterwards: “They have our number.”

(Top photo: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)

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