Paul Millsap, Balanced Nuggets Rout LeBron James, Lakers

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2018

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 27: Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots the ball against the Denver Nuggets  on November 27, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Denver Nuggets avenged their October loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and continued their hot streak Tuesday with a 117-85 victory in the Western Conference showdown at the Pepsi Center.

Denver is 14-7 overall following its fourth straight win, while the inconsistent Lakers fell to 11-9 with their second consecutive loss.

Six Nuggets scored in double figures, including Paul Millsap (20 points and 11 rebounds), Jamal Murray (20 points and four assists) and Nikola Jokic (14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists). The Nuggets also kept LeBron James in relative check, as the King finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and four turnovers.

Kyle Kuzma spearheaded the Lakers' efforts with 21 points, while Brandon Ingram added 14.

           

Nuggets' Depth Gives Them Chance to Compete with Western Conference's Best

The Nuggets didn't jump out among Western Conference contenders entering the season, given the presence of the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder, among others, but their depth has them third in the standings and playing like a true contender.

Five players average double-digit scoring, shifting defensive attention across the floor and stretching opponents thin:

That depth was tested Tuesday with Gary Harris sidelined, but it was of little concern for a bench that entered Tuesday fourth in the league in net rating, per NBA.com. The Lakers were a mere 13th, and Denver's group took advantage of the opportunity to help the starters.

Denver went primarily with a four-man bench, which extended the lead in the second quarter and ensured the starters' efforts didn't go to waste.

Mason Plumlee (10 points and 10 rebounds) and Trey Lyles (five points and nine rebounds) battled for rebounds, protected the rim and didn't back down against veteran Tyson Chandler. They kept multiple possessions alive with offensive rebounds and got the ball into the hands of shooters.

Monte Morris took the pressure off Murray as a sole backcourt ball-handler with Harris out and served as a facilitator with seven points and seven assists. Malik Beasley (20 points and four rebounds) attacked the lane but didn't hesitate to fire from deep when defenders sagged off to limit his penetration.

All four finished with a plus-minus of plus-12 or better, with three of them coming in at plus-20 or better.

The Nuggets missed the playoffs in each of the last five seasons and haven't won a postseason series since the 2008-09 campaign. The goal goes beyond just reaching the postseason, though, after this hot start, and the onus will fall largely on the bench.

The likes of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, James Harden, Chris Paul, James, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, among others, will be waiting in the playoffs when the starters are on the floor. While the Nuggets have plenty of talent of their own, it is asking a lot for Nikola Jokic and Co. in that starting lineup to beat those players in four of seven games.

Denver will need the bench to not only keep the team afloat during extended stretches in a long series but also build leads and cut into deficits. If the bench can be a positive in significant minutes, the starters can afford to lose their time on the floor and still come away victorious.

The Nuggets can only go so far against the elite playmakers in starting lineups across the West, but their bench and overall depth give them a chance to challenge virtually anyone on a nightly basis.

          

Lakers Still Not Good Enough to Win When LeBron Not Brilliant

There was plenty of coronation for the Lakers as a true contender when James elected to join them this past offseason, but this franchise still hasn't been to the playoffs since the 2012-13 season.

Much of the hype revolved around the young core taking another step, but Los Angeles is an ugly 3-5 in games when James doesn't score 25 or more points. He struggled by his elevated standards against the Nuggets, and his team never had a chance.

Part of the issue for James when he was on the Cleveland Cavaliers was a lack of support, especially after they traded Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics. He practically willed last season's team into the NBA Finals only to be steamrolled by the Warriors as things such as JR Smith's infamous play in Game 1 added up.

The lackluster record when James doesn't fill up the scoreboard suggests things aren't too different right now for the Purple and Gold. The onus falls heavily on James' shoulders every night, which is a lot to ask a 33-year-old in his 16th season, even if he is one of the best players in NBA history.

Kuzma played well but was 1-of-7 from deep, Ingram was fine as a secondary scorer but had just two rebounds, and Lonzo Ball managed just seven points and two assists in a game that saw him temporarily leave with an ankle injury. What's more, Josh Hart was a non-factor with four points as part of a bench that was significantly outplayed by Denver's.

There will come a time either in the playoffs or late in the season when the importance of every game is magnified and James will need his supporting cast to deliver. While it is still early in the season with plenty of time to turn things around, those players haven't proved capable of consistently doing that.

This is still a young group that isn't battle-tested like some of James' former teammates. Unless things do change, it appears as if the Lakers' only realistic chance to advance deep in the Western Conference playoffs will be James' individual brilliance on a nightly basis.

         

What's Next?

The Lakers host the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, while the Nuggets are at the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday.

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