For the first time since the NBA playoffs began, the Los Angeles Lakers have won the first game of a series. With a dominant, tenacious and physical defensive effort combined with breakneck speed while getting out on the run, they beat up and ran the Denver Nuggets out of the gym to take Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, 126-114.
After a back-and-forth first quarter, the Lakers outscored Denver 34-21 in the second to take an 11-point lead into halftime, and it would have been a larger gap if the L.A. hadn’t struggled at the free-throw line in the period. The Lakers obviously weren’t satisfied either, going on a 16-1 run in the third quarter (and outscoring Denver 33-20 overall over those 12 minutes) to take a 103-79 lead into the fourth, and they only continued to pour it on from there.
As expected, the Nuggets could not stop LeBron James (15 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds) or Anthony Davis (37 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists), but deserving special mention tonight are veterans Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo. Howard was instrumental in the win during his first meaningful minutes since Game 1 of the last round, giving the Lakers an infusion of energy and physicality off the bench to help get the Nuggets frustrated and in foul trouble during the first half.
Howard was so good, in fact, that head coach Frank Vogel benched JaVale McGee for him entirely in the second half after going back to McGee in the starting unit to begin the game, and how Vogel handles both big men’s spots in the rotation moving forward will be something to watch for. Howard finished the night with 13 points, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals and a plus-minus of +14. His defense on Nikola Jokic (21 points, 4 turnovers) was also key in irritating and flustering the Nuggets’ star, who ended up getting in foul trouble (5 fouls) as a result. It was an admirable job by Howard of staying ready after hardly playing at all in several weeks, and he looks to be key to this series.
Rondo was also huge for the Lakers on the evening, serving as a steadying presence off the bench who helped the team push the pace in transition while also calming the roster down in halfcourt sets. He ran a few excellent breaks while dishing out lobs in the third quarter to help the Lakers build their lead, and passed Michael Jordan for 10th all-time in playoff assists in the process. He ended the game with 7 points and 9 assists. Once again, Playoff Rondo is real, and he is spectacular.
The Nuggets likely can’t play worse (or get a worse whistle) than they did tonight, and while the Lakers earned much of their 37-28 free-throw disparity by being aggressors in the paint, it’s fair to guess things won’t always break so favorably for L.A. throughout this series. They’ll have Saturday to rest, watch tape, look for possible adjustments and make sure they’re ready for whatever’s coming in Game 2 on Sunday. If the playoffs have taught us anything, it’s that the Nuggets are unlikely to just roll over and die, but this was a great start to the series for Los Angeles.