If Wednesday was a Western Conference Finals preview, the Los Angeles Lakers appear ready to make a championship run.
Los Angeles defeated the Denver Nuggets 120-116 in overtime on Wednesday at Pepsi Center in a thrilling showdown between the teams that entered play with the two best records in the conference. LeBron James and Anthony Davis spearheaded the effort, as they so often do, helping the Purple and Gold improve to 41-12 on the season with a third straight win.
As for the Nuggets, they are still an impressive 38-17 overall even though their four-game winning streak came to an end.
Notable Player Stats
- LAL F LeBron James: 32 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds
- LAL F Anthony Davis: 33 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks
- LAL C Dwight Howard: 14 points and 11 rebounds
- DEN G Jamal Murray: 32 points and 10 assists
- DEN C Nikola Jokic: 22 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals
LeBron Heads Into All-Star Break on a High Note
James is 35 years old and in his 17th season, nine of which have featured grueling trips to the NBA Finals. Wednesday was the Lakers' last game before the All-Star break, and they have the best record in the Western Conference.
It would have been easy for the King to shift into cruise control before some time off from the regular-season grind.
Instead, he unleashed his individual brilliance and was perhaps at least somewhat motivated by Monte Morris' decision to talk trash to him in the first half. LeBron silenced the Nuggets' fans, caused a delay of game with a monster tomahawk slam in the third quarter, gave the Lakers the lead with a two-handed jam in the fourth quarter and had no trouble facilitating when needed.
Davis wasn't the only one who benefited from James' vision as Dwight Howard consistently found the open spot when doubles came at No. 23, allowing him to capitalize on opportunities in front of the rim.
As expected, it was James with the ball in his hands in crunch time. He blew past defenders multiple times for layups in the final three minutes of regulation, hit a cutting Alex Caruso when three Nuggets were looking at him to push the lead to four and created a clean look for a game-winner at the buzzer.
While that shot didn't fall, he made up for it in overtime by scoring the Lakers' first basket and assisting on two straight triples from Davis to help clinch the win.
It was quite the way for the 16-time All-Star to head into the break.
Jamal Murray Dazzles as More Than Secondary Option in Defeat
Michael Porter Jr. (ankle) and Will Barton (knee) were both sidelined for Wednesday's contest, leaving Denver without two players who can create their own shots on the wing and take some pressure off Nikola Jokic.
While Jokic is a unique talent who runs the offense for extended stretches from the high elbow and serves as the rare triple-double threat from the center position, he still needs those other playmakers to compete against the likes of the Lakers.
Enter Jamal Murray.
The University of Kentucky product shifted into takeover mode in the third quarter with a number of floaters in the lane and the ability to facilitate when needed. He also turned heads when he put Avery Bradley on the deck and drilled a three to push Denver's advantage to four with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth.
Ultimately, Murray and Jokic couldn't keep pace with the James and Davis pairing, especially with Howard providing physical defense on the Nuggets big man, but the former was the best player on the floor for spurts in a game featuring some of the league's headliners.
It should provide a confidence boost heading into the season's stretch run.
Both teams are in action Friday, Feb. 21 when the Lakers host the Memphis Grizzlies and the Nuggets travel to face the Oklahoma City Thunder.