Nikola Jokic, Nuggets Crush Anthony Davis and the LeBron James-Less Lakers

Megan ArmstrongAnalyst IIIDecember 23, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis is fouled as he shoots between Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., left, and center Mason Plumlee during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)
Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

The Denver Nuggets won their sixth straight game by squashing the Los Angeles Lakers 128-104 at Staples Center on Sunday night.

The Lakers were without LeBron James, whom head coach Frank Vogel disclosed suffered a thoracic muscle strain against Indiana on Tuesday but played through the injury on Thursday in Milwaukee. Kyle Kuzma, out since Dec. 8 with an ankle injury, returned for L.A.

L.A.'s offense was mostly stagnant without James. Vogel rolled with a makeshift starting five featuring All-Star forward Anthony Davis, center JaVale McGee, guard Avery Bradley, guard Rajon Rondo and guard Danny Green. It marked Rondo's first start of the season.

Davis posted his fifth consecutive double-double, but the only other Laker to score in double digits was Kuzma.

Denver contrastingly showcased effective depth with six double-digit scorers.

The Nuggets improved to 20-8 and second-place position in the Western Conference.

L.A. fell to 24-6, riding a three-game losing streak. However, the Lakers are still sitting pretty atop the Western Conference entering their matchup with the crosstown-rival Los Angeles Clippers on Christmas Day.


Notable Stats

DEN F Paul Millsap: 21 points, 1 rebound

DEN G Gary Harris: 19 points, 1 rebound, 5 assists, 4 steals

DEN C Nikola Jokic: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, 1 block

DEN G Will Barton: 14 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals

LAL F Anthony Davis: 32 points, 11 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 blocks

LAL F Kyle Kuzma: 16 points, 4 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 blocks

LAL G Rajon Rondo: 5 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals


Nuggets' Depth Overwhelms Short-Handed Lakers

Millsap was considered questionable for this game with a left knee contusion, but the 34-year-old forward's performance left no doubt:


Paul Millsap’s 12 points in the 3rd QTR help extend the Nuggets lead at Staples 👀 Nuggets are up 91-78 at the start of the 4th QTR! #MileHighBasketball https://t.co/gYMbJlQExm

T.J. McBride @TJMcBrideNBA

Absolutely insane to me that people think Paul Millsap hasn’t been worth every damn penny of his 3 year/$90 million deal.

Mike Singer @msinger

Millsap's all about the celebrations tonight after draining another 3-pointer. First he holds the pose, and next he swings his arm around for the 👌👌 celebration. He's up to 17 points on 7-of-12 from the field.

Millsap carried the Nuggets in place of their usual leaders. Jokic went from the 2:39 mark in the first quarter to 3:40 mark in the third without scoring a point. Jamal Murray, the team's leading scorer (17.9 points per game) entering Sunday, was held to just six points on 3-of-11 shooting.

Murray was still effective as an outlet, though, as one of five Nuggets with a team-high five assists:


Murray spins, draws the D and dishes to Millsap! #MileHighBasketball https://t.co/DNwrB9k84s

The Nuggets bench picked up some slack, too, with Malik Beasley (16 points) and Mason Plumlee (10 points) leading the way for the reserves:

T.J. McBride @TJMcBrideNBA

Denver’s bench unit isn’t playing pretty basketball, but they’re getting the job done tonight.

T.J. McBride @TJMcBrideNBA

What a game by Malik Beasley. He has stayed ready and been a huge boost offensively for the Nuggets reserves.

Nick Kosmider @NickKosmider

Malik Beasley has had a theatric reaction to just about every Nuggets bucket in this fourth quarter, including the 🤫 for the crowd after his last three. He's up to 16 in arguably his strongest game of the season.

Nick Kosmider @NickKosmider

Huge tip by Mason Plumlee at the close of the third quarter gives Denver its biggest lead, 91-78. Great run by the Nuggets bench to end the period. After a rough start, Plumlee has 10 points on 4-4 shooting, three rebounds and three assists.

All of that is before mentioning Barton's double-double or Harris' game-high four steals alongside 19 points on 70 percent shooting from the field.

Harrison Wind @HarrisonWind

If you’re putting together a 1st Team All-Defense after the first trimester of the regular season Gary Harris deserves a spot. Nuggets have the second-best defense in the league and Harris draws the opposition’s top guard every night. His off-ball defense has been top-notch too.

T.J. McBride @TJMcBrideNBA

What a massive sequence from Gary Harris to start the 4th. He blew up a DHO for a steal and runout dunk on the first play and grabbed another steal and hit a 3 on the second play. Nuggets now lead by 18 after Harris’ individual 5-0 run.

A 24-point win over the Lakers would seem improbable for Denver on the surface, but the Nuggets used their depth to compensate for lacking in star power what L.A. has in Davis and James. As a result, they secured a statement win over the best in the West and their best start in franchise history, per The Athletic's Nick Kosmider.


Anthony Davis Struggles to Carry Lakers Without LeBron

The Lakers lost 105-102 to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday. James played, but Davis missed the contest with a sprained right ankle.

The inverse was true against the Nuggets, but the result was the same.

L.A. looks like the favorite to win it all when Davis and James are on the floor together. When it's either-or, however, the Lakers look vulnerable.

Bleacher Report NBA @BR_NBA

Lakers' first 27 games: 24-3 Lakers' last 3 games: 0-3 https://t.co/zqnFN02C45

Aside from an obvious lack of scoring, the Lakers also finished the night with 19 turnovers compared to 18 assists. The Nuggets outscored the Lakers 22-9 in fast break points and 62-56 in the paint.

Kuzma was the lone bright spot outside of Davis:


AD ➡️ Kuz ➡️ Bucket #LakeShow https://t.co/MQIrbQYpnv

Kuzma also admitted that there's no such thing as replacing James:

Mike Trudell @LakersReporter

Kyle Kuzma, on LAL’s typical mentality being difficult to apply to LeBron: “It’s kinda hard to ‘next man up LeBron. He does so much.”

This was the Lakers' first time playing without James this season, and it showed. In the grand scheme, this loss won't make or break L.A. Managing James' health in December so he and Davis are ready to lead the team in the postseason is the priority.


What's Next?

The Nuggets will quickly travel to Phoenix to take on the Suns on Monday night.

The Lakers will clash with the Clippers in a Western Conference heavyweight battle Christmas Day.