With one comeback after another in the playoffs, the Denver Nuggets showed themselves to be a team that falls down but doesn’t stay down.
The Los Angeles Lakers noticed.
They watched the Nuggets repeatedly rally from big deficits against Utah and then the Los Angeles Clippers — and, obviously, are aware that the Jazz and the Clippers are no longer in the NBA bubble because of Denver’s comeback abilities.
So the Lakers knew that when it was their turn to face Denver, there would be no letting up no matter what the scoreboard said.
Game 2 is Sunday night. The Lakers know the job is far from over.
“No lead is safe with this team, in the game or in the series,” Lakers star Anthony Davis said. “They have proven that they are a second-half team, where they come out and just destroy teams in the second half and prove that even if they are down a series, they are a team that’s going to be resilient and keep fighting no matter what the score is, what the situation is.
“When we have a lead, we have to lock in even more.”
The Lakers did that in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, turning an 11-point halftime lead into a 27-point bulge in the second half before easing to a 126-114 victory.
“That’s a historic type of resilient team,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ve got to understand that, both with the series lead 1-0 right now and wherever it goes, but also within games.”
Denver reached the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2009 by becoming the first team in NBA history to erase two 3-1 deficits in one post-season. The Nuggets trailed by 15 points in Game 5 against Utah in their first game facing elimination, then were down 16, 19 and 12 in the final three games against the Clippers.
The Nuggets are the first team with three 15-point comebacks while facing elimination in one post-season since play-by-play began being recorded digitally in 1997.
“This is an opponent we all greatly respect,” Vogel said. “Save for the comebacks, we respect what they are capable of doing on both ends of the floor.”
It won’t matter how resilient the Nuggets are if they don’t make things tougher for the Lakers defensively.
Davis shredded them so easily on his way to 37 points that the Lakers didn’t even need much scoring from LeBron James, who took only 11 shots and had 15 points and 12 assists. Los Angeles got plenty of opportunities in transition and in the paint, which were areas of emphasis for Denver.
“We were giving up layups after we scored baskets ourselves. So that indicates to me that our sense of urgency to get back was not anywhere remotely close to where it needed to be tonight,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the game.
When the Nuggets do get back, they need to do a better job of defending without fouling. They sent the Lakers to the line 24 times in the second quarter — Denver shot only 28 for the entire game — and both Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray had to go to the bench with three fouls in the period.
“We’ve just got to be better,” Murray said. “We’ve just got to be on point. We’ve got to talk more, talk earlier, point, whatever we’ve got to do.”
This is the first time in this post-season the Lakers will take the lead into Game 2, having dropped their opening games against both Portland and Houston. They didn’t lose again in either series.
Going into Sunday, the Lakers will have the second-best record in the post-season at 9-2, trailing only Miami. It’s a big turnaround for the Lakers, who struggled at times during the seeding games in the bubble — but, as James’ teams tend to do in the post-season, are hitting their best stride when the games matter most.
Denver is also used to playing from behind — much further behind. So even though things looked bad Friday, the Nuggets have been in much worse spots in the bubble and found their way out of them.
“We have proven it time and time again that we can learn from our losses and figure out what we need to do better going into the next game and give ourselves a much better chance to win,” Malone said.