A battle between the Western Conference's top two teams in the standings entering Tuesday went the Los Angeles Lakers' way in a 105-96 win over the host Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.
The Lakers led by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, but Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap keyed a Nuggets comeback that brought Denver within 97-96 after two Nikola Jokic free throws with 2:23 left.
However, L.A. responded with an 8-0 run that included a LeBron James putback dunk, which gave the Lakers a 102-96 edge with 1:15 remaining.
James and Anthony Davis each scored 25 points for Los Angeles, which out-rebounded Denver 56-35.
Murray's 22 points paced Denver, and Millsap added 21.
Jokic had an off-night, scoring 13 points on just 4-of-12 shooting and committing five turnovers. He filled out the stat sheet otherwise with eight assists, five rebounds and three steals.
The 18-3 Lakers stayed on top of the Western Conference. The 13-5 Nuggets lost their second straight game.
Lakers F Anthony Davis: 25 points, 10 rebounds
Lakers G/F LeBron James: 25 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds
Lakers G Rajon Rondo: 11 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds
Nuggets C Nikola Jokic: 13 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals
Nuggets G Jamal Murray: 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals
Nuggets F Paul Millsap: 21 points, 8 rebounds
Lakers Put Mavs Loss in Rearview Mirror with Strong Road Win
No one can fault the Lakers for an off-night here and there, and that's what happened Sunday as Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks beat L.A. 114-110 at Staples Center.
The question was how the Lakers would respond after getting punched in the mouth, and the answer was clear Tuesday with Los Angeles playing tough defense and holding the second-place Nuggets to 96 points on their home court.
On a night where L.A. only had four players make three or more field goals, the Lakers needed their defense to clamp down on a tough Nuggets team featuring a versatile All-Star center in Jokic, a potentially hot scorer in Murray and a deep five-man bench.
Los Angeles held Denver to 40.7 percent shooting overall and 20.7 percent from three-point range. The boards were also the Lakers' domain, with all 10 members who played grabbing three or more in the team effort. Of course, none was more impressive than this Alex Caruso gem:
L.A. has posted impressive results after each of its three losses this season. Following an opening-night defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers defense dominated in a 95-86 win over the Utah Jazz, who are a respectable 12-9.
A home loss to the Toronto Raptors led to a strong 123-115 road victory over the Phoenix Suns, who entered the game winners of four of their last five.
The regular-season calendar hasn't turned to the new year, and we're months away from the postseason. However, early returns suggest this Lakers team won't let bad losses snowball into future performances.
Jokic's Struggles Continue in Defeat
Jokic is having a disappointing season based on the standards set in 2018-19.
Entering Tuesday, the following stats have gone in the wrong direction: field-goal percentage (51.1 to 45.8), three-point percentage (30.7 to 23.2), assists (7.3 to 6.0) and points (20.1 to 15.6). His player efficiency rating has dropped from 26.3 to 19.4, per Basketball Reference.
Those drops are perplexing considering that the 24-year-old Jokic should be in the prime of his career, and his struggles continued Tuesday.
On a night where the Nuggets needed a strong effort on the boards, Jokic grabbed just five in 34 minutes. The Lakers also had twice as many offensive rebounds (14-7). After the game, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone provided his thoughts on the differential's importance:
Jokic also committed five of the Nuggets' 11 turnovers, giving him 25 in his last seven games.
Of course, Jokic's struggles need to be put in some context.
He's still averaging over 15 points and 10 boards for a 13-5 Nuggets team in the top three of the tough Western Conference. Jokic has also posted some excellent individual performances of late, including an 18-point triple-double against the Boston Celtics on Nov. 22.
Tuesday's matchup is clearly the toughest possible one for any big man, as Los Angeles is fourth in defensive efficiency, per ESPN, and partially patrolled down low by a three-time All-Defensive team member in Davis.
But the Jokic who was an All-NBA First Team member last year and posted the ridiculous stat line shown by Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey below has not appeared consistently in 2019-20:
The Nuggets are only 18 matchups into an 82-game season, so it's not as if Jokic's struggles are a major cause for concern with four-plus months remaining until the playoffs. The 13-5 team record helps too. However, the Nuggets' ceiling will be clearly capped if the slump lingers into the winter and spring.
The Lakers will visit the Utah Jazz on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET at Salt Lake City's Vivint Smart Home Arena. Denver will hit the road to face the New York Knicks on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Madison Square Garden.