By Don Wanlass
For the first time this year, the Lakers lost the first game of a playoff series.
That doesn’t mean the Lakers season is coming to an end. It just means the Denver Nuggets are a lot better than the Memphis Grizzlies or the Golden State Warriors.
The Nuggets’ 132-126 win May 16 in Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals doesn’t mean the Nuggets will dominate this series, but if you thought so when it was 72-54 at halftime, you weren’t alone.
The Nuggets, particularly their star center Nikola Jokic, came out and punched the Lakers in the mouth in the first half. To their credit, the Lakers regrouped at halftime, made some adjustments and actually came close to tying the score in the last few minutes of the game.
That should improve their confidence for Game 2 May 18, also in Denver.
Jokic showed why he should have been the NBA most valuable player for the third year in a row this season.
He finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds and 14 assists. He had a triple double by the end of the third quarter when he already had 31 of his 34 points. The Lakers slowed him down by putting Rui Hachimura on him in the fourth quarter, allowing Anthony Davis to be a defensive rover and protect the rim.
It worked enough to slow Jokic down to only three points in the fourth quarter and to allow the Lakers to get back in the game, but the Nuggets have two days to counter that switch and the Lakers better have something else up their sleeve defensively, because the Nuggets have more weapons that the Grizzlies or Warriors did.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone used only an eight-man rotation, but six of the eight scored in double figures. Point guard Jamal Murray scored 31 and former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 21. Starting forwards Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon scored 15 and 12, respectively, and Bruce Brown came off the bench to score 16.
That was enough to overcome a 40-point night by Anthony Davis, who also added 10 rebounds. LeBron James just missed a triple double with 26 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists.
Austin Reaves scored 23 and Hachimura added 17, but guards Denis Schroder and D’Angelo Russell combined for only 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting. One of those two will probably return to the bench for Game 2.
The small lineup of Davis, James, Reaves, Russell and Schroder, which worked so well against the Warriors, doesn’t match up as well against the Nuggets.
The big difference in Game 1 was rebounding. The Nuggets won the battle of the boards, 47-30.
They had 15 offensive rebounds to the Lakers’ 5. They grabbed the rebounds on nine of their first 11 missed shots.
That will have to change for Game 2, which is why you will see either Hachimura or Jarred Vanderbilt in the starting lineup.
The field goal percentages were almost identical. The Nuggets made 54.9% of their shots, the Lakers 54.8%. From three-point range, the Nuggets were 15 of 31 (46.9%), the Lakers were 11 of 24 (45.8%).
The two teams split their four meetings this season, the Nuggets winning two games in Denver and the Lakers winning both games here.
It should be an evenly matched series, with two of the game’s top centers — Davis and Jokic — battling head to head.
The Lakers would love to come home tied 1-1. It will take a concentrated, game-long effort, though to win Game 2. Showing up for just the second half won’t work.
STARTING TO ROLL: It took a while, but the Dodgers are finally starting to put it together.
After a slow start that saw them at 10-11 after 21 games and 13-13 after 26 games, the Dodgers have now won 14 of their last 17 and lead the Arizona Diamondbacks by three games in the National League West.
The San Diego Padres, who keep signing high-priced players in their attempts to surpass the Dodgers, are four games behind the Diamondbacks and have lost 8 of their last 10 games.
The Dodgers still are not hitting on all cylinders, but their pitching is starting to come together.
Offensively, only Freddie Freeman and Will Smith are hitting over .300 and rookie outfielder James Outman is the only other player on the roster hitting over .250.
Leadoff hitter Mookie Betts is hitting only .244. Clean-up man Max Muncy is hitting .217. Designated hitter J.D. Martinez is hitting only .241.
But the Dodgers lead the National League as a team in home runs with 71, runs scored with 230 and walks with 191. It’s a combination that works, especially when the pitching staff is starting to sort itself out.
The Dodgers now have the third best earned run average in the league at 3.96. Their pitchers have given up the fewest walks in the league.
The return of Tony Gonsolin to the starting rotation has fortified the pitching staff. Starters lasting longer into games has strengthened the bullpen, allowing manager Dave Roberts to mix and match his relievers based on who is coming to the plate in the next inning.
With seven saves, Evan Phillips has established himself as the closer in the bullpen, but Roberts also trusts Brusdar Graterol, Yency Almonte and left-hander Caleb Ferguson in high-leverage, late-inning situations and all three have been coming through.
Even Phil Bickford, who has an earned run average of 4.58, pitched well out of the bullpen May 15, allowing an unearned run and one hit in three innings of work in the Dodgers’ 9-8 win over the Minnesota Twins in 12 innings.
Julio Urias was supposed to take over as staff ace this year, but Clayton Kershaw won’t allow it. Kershaw is 6-3 with a 2.52 ERA. Urias is 5-3 with a 3.61 ERA.
Dustin May appears to have totally recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2021. He is 4-1 with a 2.68 ERA.
As good as the pitching is, when the Dodgers hit they are almost unbeatable.
Once again they are over-reliant on the home run. When they don’t get home runs, they find it harder to score.
In a 5-1 loss to the Twins May 16, the Dodgers had lead-off doubles four times. They only got one of the four runners home.
Muncy leads the league in home runs with 14. Betts has 9, Outman has 8 and Smith, Freeman and Chris Taylor all have 7.
The schedule is going to get tougher. The team starts a 10 game road trip May 18 in St. Louis. After four with the Cardinals, they face the Atlanta Braves, who have the second best record in the National League, for three games and then they face the Tampa Bay Rays, who have the best overall record in the Major Leagues, for three.
When they return home May 29, they have three games with the Washington Nationals and then three games with the New York Yankees.
That stretch will show everyone what kind of team the Dodgers have this year. It won’t win 111 games like last year’s squad did, but they will be in contention for their 11th Western Division title in the past 12 years.