Nuggets overcome 40-year-old LeBron James for WCF sweep of Lakers, first-ever trip to Finals

Nuggets overcome 40-year-old LeBron James for WCF sweep of Lakers, first-ever trip to Finals

May 22, 2023;  Los Angeles, California, USA;  Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) heads for the basket against Los Angeles Lakers forward Rui Hachimura (28) during the second quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals for the 2023 NBA Playoffs at Arena.  Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James gave the Denver Nuggets his best shot on Monday. It wasn’t enough.

Powered by a historic triple-double from Nikola Jokić, the Nuggets rallied for a 113-111 win to complete a 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The win continued a remarkable Nuggets-led playoff streak while securing their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals. They did it while overcoming the playoff best effort by one of the greatest players of all time.

James started the game on fire, scoring 21 points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 34-26 lead. He shot 7 of 9 from the field, including 4 of 4 from 3-point range. A lob attempt from beyond the 3-point arc instead dropped through the net for a basket as a sign of things to come.

The bucket sparked an 8-0 personal run from James that gave the Lakers a 23-15 lead. He stayed hot throughout the half and didn’t leave the game before taking an early break at the locker with 4.3 seconds left in the half. The Lakers led 73-58 at the break thanks to James’ 31 points in the first half.

The nuggets bounce

But the Nuggets weren’t fazed. They shot 50% from the field in the first half despite being down 15 points. They opened the third quarter with a 9-2 run to force a timeout from the Lakers. A Kentavious Caldwell-Pope layup at 7:21 of the third extended the Nuggets’ run to 24-8 and gave them their first lead of the game at 82-81.

Jokić delivered the aid on the go-ahead bucket. The flat was his 10th of the game, securing his eighth triple-double of the playoffs. He broke a tie with Wilt Chamberlain for the most triple-doubles in a single postseason. Jokić still has at least four games to add to his tally.

James, who had played just 4.3 seconds of the game, scored zero throughout Denver’s rally. He entered the scoreboard for the first time in the second half with a floater with 2:47 to go. But a potential Los Angeles blowout had shifted in Denver’s favor as the Nuggets posted a 36-16 third-quarter advantage to take a 94-89 fourth-quarter lead.

Denver maintained its advantage for most of the fourth quarter. Offensive fouls on Jokić on consecutive possessions sparked back-to-back buckets by the Lakers with an Anthony Davis dunk tying the game at 102-102 with 4:59 remaining. Tensions mounted on both sides.

From there, the match remained a back-and-forth battle until the last minute. But since they made all the playoffs, the Nuggets made the big plays when it mattered most. A Jokić layup in traffic with 51.1 seconds remaining gave Denver the lead for good at 113-11.

The Lakers had two chances to respond, but couldn’t find another bucket. On the Lakers’ next possession, James threw a desperation jumper from the baseline that hit the side of the backboard as the shot clock expired.

Given another chance to tie with four seconds remaining, the Lakers once again turned to James. This time he attacked the basket, where he was met by a double team of Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray. Gordon, who had challenged James’ earlier failure, blocked the lay-up attempt and the game was over.

The Nuggets were in the NBA Finals. The Lakers, meanwhile, saw a midseason turnaround and an unexpected playoff from the play-in ended woefully short against a superior Denver team.

Jokić, he has done throughout the season and playoffs, anchored the Nuggets victory. The two-time MVP made several big plays during the Nuggets rally and during the closing minutes of the game. He continued to hit extraordinary shots at critical moments in the game.

He finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, 3 blocks and a steal. He shot 11 of 24 from the field, including 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. But he was not alone.

All five Nuggets starters scored in double figures. Murray finished with 25 points while shooting 10 of 18 from the field. Michael Porter Jr. struggled on the court on a 5-of-16 effort but contributed a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Gordon had 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists and had defensive saves on James on the Lakers’ last two possessions.

James had 40 points and came just short of a triple-double with 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 steals. He shot 15 of 25 from the field and 4 of 7 from outside the arc. He turned to overdrive in the first half as he looked to win the Lakers. But the 38-year-old couldn’t keep pace after half-time in a game where he played all but the closing seconds of the first half.

Davis finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal. Rui Hachimura had 10 points in his playoff debut in the starting lineup. Dennis Schröder replaced D’Angelo Russell as the starting point guard after Russell struggled to contain Murray on defense throughout the series. Schröder finished with 13 points, 5 assists and 2 steals. Russell scored 4 points in 15 minutes off the bench.

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