The Lakers gave it everything they had in Game 4 on Monday, but it was ultimately not enough as the Nuggets completed an unlikely but impressive sweep of the Lakers with a 113-111 victory.
No one would have anticipated a sweep coming into this series, but Denver had answers all series long to anything and everything the Lakers threw at them. There’s some solace in losing to a team that was just flat out the better team like the Nuggets were, though that ultimately doesn’t make the losses any less frustrating.
Each Denver performance this series was more impressive than the prior. They survived a furious rally in Game 1, then had their own comeback at home in Game 2. In Game 3 against a Lakers team that hadn’t lost at home all postseason, they absorbed Jokic foul trouble to win going away, and then withstood a LeBron masterclass in Game 4 to come back from 15 points down at halftime and sweep the Lakers.
Truly, this is a great Nuggets team that deserved to win.
Having said that, let me go get a drink of water to rinse that taste out of my mouth and look at the takeaways from the Lakers season-ending loss.
LeBron James still had it
It was fair to wonder considering how his Game 3 played out if the foot injury or exhaustion or Father Time had caught up to LeBron. He hasn’t had the explosion or force since his foot injury, and that felt like the most likely thing holding him back — and you could hardly blame him if he just didn’t have anything left in the fuel tank.
Then he dipped into the reserves one more time to deliver another classic. Given his career and accomplishments and accolades, when LeBron sets a career high of any sort, it’s notable. He pulled out all the stops in the first half, scored 31 points and played all but the final three seconds, helping the Lakers to a 15-point halftime lead.
It may not have been vintage LeBron given his physical limitations at this point, but it was methodical and surgical. He knew what he could do, knew what was available to him and dissected the Nuggets accordingly.
It took just about everything he had to do so, but he also gave the Lakers the aforementioned double-digit lead in doing so, likely under the premise of them being able to hold on.
He spent much of the second half looking like someone who played the entire first half and emptied whatever he had left. He competed like hell defensively, turned into a facilitator offensively and did his damnedest.
But the effects of that first half, the foot injury, the months of playoff basketball this team had to play led to him being unable to even get a shot off to tie the game. He was dominant when few probably expected him to be.
Prior to Game 4, I wrote about the resiliency of this Lakers team that, again, will be the one trait many will always associate with this team. Monday was a test of that resiliency yet again. The season was on the line, the backs were against the wall, and they were tasked with fighting back yet again, something they’ve had to do for the better part of the last three-and-a-half months.
In that sense, it was nice to see them come out with the necessary effort to try to push this to a fifth game. At no point in this series did the Lakers ever quit. Every Denver run, every Denver lead, the Lakers answered it in some form or fashion.
When Jokic was throwing in absolute circus shots in Game 4, the Lakers responded. In many ways, one of the sequences the is most emblematic of this team came after Jokic’s one-footed 3-pointer with Anthony Davis in his face to beat the shot clock buzzer in the fourth quarter.
The Lakers response was for LeBron to drive and kick to Dennis Schröder — who passed to Austin Reaves, who was open because of a screen set by Anthony Davis. Reaves buried the corner 3-pointer to cut it right back to a three-point game and keep the Lakers back in the game.
This team never relented. Not on Monday. Not in the series. Not in these playoffs. Not in the nearly four months they were together. That shouldn’t, and hopefully won’t, go unnoticed.
Just to be clear up front here, the phrase “competitive sweep” is a bit of an oxymoron. Ultimately, the Nuggets were the better team and won the series handily.
However, this was a series separated by 24 total points across the four games and 11 of those points came in a Game 3 that was closer than the score indicated. The Lakers were right there in this series. It’s close enough that they can look at their own mistakes as reasons for losing a number of games.
Ultimately, they weren’t good enough this year, but they aren’t that far off. And considering this run took them all the way to the conference finals, being close on that stage means you’re a title contender.
The Lakers once again have a team that can be competitive. They spent the better part of two years wasting LeBron and AD performances before getting back here, but they’re there once again.
The offseason will be as important as ever for the Lakers. The amount of chances they have left with LeBron and AD are as few as ever, and it might be down to the last one. But this team was close.
The Lakers can’t overreact to a playoff loss, as they did after losing to the Suns in 2021. Press the right buttons, make the right moves, and this team has one more really good run in them to compete for a title again next year.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.