DENVER — Nikola Jokic claimed he did not have a strategy in mind to combat Anthony Davis.
But it did not take long in Tuesday night’s Game 1 for the Los Angeles Lakers to see Jokic’s blueprint. The Denver Nuggets’ superstar came out extremely aggressive, reintroducing himself to LeBron James and Davis on the Western Conference finals stage, but this time as a two-time MVP at the top of his game.
Jokic compiled his third straight triple-double this postseason by the third quarter, and finished with 34 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists and two blocks to help the Nuggets take a 132-126 win at Ball Arena.
“He makes it [look] really simple,” Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon said of Jokic taking whatever a defense gives him. “[But also] he makes it look miraculous at the same time. It’s like ridiculous.”
Jokic was a force, especially on the glass, where he had six offensive rebounds in the first quarter alone. The Lakers had a total of six rebounds in the quarter as a team. By halftime, Jokic outrebounded the entire Lakers team 16-13.
On offense, he looked as aggressive as ever, putting the ball on the floor and driving hard and quick on Davis and any other Lakers defender. He even posted Davis, spun to his left and drove baseline for a dunk on the Lakers big man.
“I thought when he felt there was one-on-one coverage, facing up and getting to the basket, [Jokic used] that understated athleticism to finish in traffic. That was great to see,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.
“He’s going to continue to have to do that at a high level. But his rebounding early on, I think there was a point in this game we were up rebounding, I think, 22-3. So we were just kind of imposing our will on the glass.”
By the end of the third quarter, Jokic had 31 points, 19 rebounds and 12 assists to help Denver lead by as much as 21 points. He gave the Lakers a dose of how dominant he was in the second round, when he averaged 34.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 10.3 assists while shooting 59.4% from the field against the Phoenix Suns.
“I feel like the only difference is ‘Bron can jump higher than Jokic,” Nuggets guard and former Laker Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said when asked about the difference between Jokic’s and James’ versatile triple-double games. “That’s about the only difference that I can see. I just love playing with Jokic, willing passer, dominant big man down there. Just seeing him do what he does, gets everybody else going.”
Jokic even buried a 28-foot step-back 3-pointer in Davis’ face at the third-quarter buzzer that drew a smile from Davis and a shrug from the Nuggets big man.
“Oh, sometimes luck is on our side,” Jokic said. “It’s a crazy shot, of course. It’s not something that I work on, but I’m glad it went in.”
Jokic made 12 of his first 15 shots, but his team was just as hot. Denver shot 56% from the field and 12-of-24 from 3 through the first three quarters.
However, the Lakers stormed back. Coach Darvin Ham put Rui Hachimura on Jokic to allow Davis to roam in the paint defensively instead of having to carry the full Jokic assignment. After trailing by 14 with 6:33 remaining, the Lakers cut the deficit to three multiple times within the final 2:18.
But Jokic hit Caldwell-Pope (21 points) for a driving finger roll with 1:53 to go. When the Lakers got back within three, Jamal Murray (31 points) got a steal and Jokic hit four free throws to seal the game.
Davis put up a fight against Jokic, finishing with 40 points and 10 rebounds. And James just missed out on his own triple-double with 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
Jokic is the first player to record multiple 30-point triple-doubles while shooting 70% from the field in NBA postseason history, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. And he has now done that in each of his past two games.
Jokic might have to be even better in Game 2 after how the Lakers clawed their way back into Game 1.
“I’d much rather clean up things after a win in the Western Conference finals than a loss,” Malone said. “So we’ll take it, but much work to do.”