NBA playoffs: Nuggets overcome LeBron James’ 40 for WCF sweep of Lakers, first-ever Finals trip

May 23, 2023 in Sports

LeBron James gave the Denver Nuggets his best shot on Monday. It wasn’t enough.

Powered by a history-making Nikola Jokić triple-double, the Nuggets rallied for a 113-111 win to complete a 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The victory continued a remarkable postseason run by the Nuggets while securing their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals. They did so while overcoming the best effort of the postseason by one of the game’s all-time greats.

LeBron James starts game in overdrive
James started the game on fire, scoring 21 points in the first quarter as the Lakers took a 34-26 lead. He shot 7-of-9 from the field, including a 4-of-4 effort from 3-point distance. A lob attempt from beyond the 3-point arc instead dropped through the net for a basket in a sign of things to come.

The bucket sparked a personal 8-0 run by James that gave the Lakers a 23-15 lead. He remained hot throughout the half, and didn’t leave the game until taking an early break to the locker with with 4.3 seconds remaining in the half. The Lakers led 73-58 at the break powered by James’ 31 first-half points.

Nuggets bounce back
But the Nuggets weren’t fazed. They shot 50% from the field in the first half despite the 15-point deficit. They opened the third quarter with a 9-2 run to force a Lakers timeout. A Kentavious Caldwell-Pope layup 7:21 into the third extended the Nuggets run to 24-8 and give them their first lead of the game at 82-81.

Jokić makes NBA history
Jokić delivered the assist on the go-ahead bucket. The dish was his 10th of the game, securing his eighth triple-double of the playoffs. It broke a tie with Wilt Chamberlain for the most triple-doubles in a single postseason. Jokić has at least four more games to add to his tally.

James, who’d played all but 4.3 seconds of the game, was scoreless throughout the Denver rally. He got on the scoreboard for the first time in the second half with a floater with 2:47 remaining. But a potential Los Angeles blowout shifted to Denver’s favor as the Nuggets posted a 36-16 third-quarter edge to take a 94-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

Denver maintained its edge through most of the fourth quarter. Offensive fouls on Jokić on consecutive possessions sparked back-to-back buckets by the Lakers with an Anthony Davis dunk tying the game at 102-102 with 4:59 remaining. Tensions rose for both sides.

From there, the game remained a back-and-forth battle through the final minute. But as they’ve done all postseason, the Nuggets made the big plays when it mattered most down the stretch. A Jokić layup in traffic with 51.1 seconds remaining gave Denver the lead for good at 113-11.

LeBron comes up short with 2 chances to tie
The Lakers had two chances to respond, but failed to come up with another bucket. On the Lakers’ ensuing possession, James launched a desperation fallaway jumper from the baseline that hit the side of the backboard as the shot clock expired.

Given another chance to tie with four seconds remaining, the Lakers looked to James again. This time he attacked the basket, where he was met by a double-team from Aaron Gordon and Jamal Murray. Gordon, who’d contested James’ previous miss, blocked the layup attempt, and the game was over

The Nuggets were on to the NBA Finals. The Lakers, meanwhile saw a midseason turnaround and unexpected playoff run from the play-in come up woefully short against a superior Denver team.

Jokić named WCF MVP
Jokić, as he’s done throughout the season and playoffs, anchored the Nuggets’ victory. The two-time MVP made multiple big plays through Nuggets rally and during the game’s final minutes. He continued to hit extraordinary shots at critical game junctures.

He finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, 3 blocks and a steal. He shot 11-of-24 from the field including a 3-of-6 effort from beyond the arc. He was awarded the Western Conference finals MVP trophy after the game. But he wasn’t alone.

All five Nuggets starters scored in double figures. Murray finished with 25 points while shooting 10-of-18 from the field. Michael Porter Jr. struggled from the field on a 5-of-16 effort, but contributed a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Gordon tallied 22 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists and came up with defensive stops on James on the Lakers’ final two possessions

LeBron’s 40 not enough
James tallied 40 points and came up just short of a triple-double with 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 2 steals. He shot 15-of-25 from the field and 4-of-7 from beyond the arc. He turned up the volume in the first half as he looked to will the Lakers to win. But the 38-year-old couldn’t keep up the pace after halftime in a game where he played all but the final few seconds of the first half.

Davis finished with 21 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks and a steal. Rui Hachimura tallied 10 points in his postseason debut in the starting lineup. Dennis Schröder replaced D’Angelo Russell as the starting point guard after Russell struggled to contain Murray on defense throughout the series. Schröder finished with 13 points, 5 assists and 2 steals. Russell scored 4 points in 15 minutes off the bench.

The Nuggets will get a long break before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which is slated for June 1 in Denver. They’ll face the winner between the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. The eighth-seeded Heat will look to complete their own sweep of the Celtics on Tuesday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, will rest and prepare. They’re four wins away from their first NBA championship.