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“Shocking” might be the only word in the dictionary fit to describe the Los Angeles Lakers’ 101-99 collapse against the Denver Nuggets in Game 2 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. And with good reason, too.With 7:15 left in the third quarter, LeBron James and company were given a 95.6 percent chance to send the series back to Los Angeles even. They’d already fallen short after playing from behind for most of the second half in Game 1, but this time was different. This time, Denver was the one trailing.After the first five minutes of the third quarter, a 19-point lead separated the Lakers from the Nuggets. Soon after that, it was 20. The Lakers knew closing out the game would be an even bigger battle than building the lead was in the first place, but they felt ready for the challenge. Only, they weren’t.Denver clawed its way back throughout the remainder of the half and eventually tied the contest with under a minute remaining. James missed a wide-open 3-point attempt on Los Angeles’ final possession, and then came Jamal Murray.

“A 20-point lead in this league, it’s not safe,” James said on the postgame podium. “Especially against the defending champion. We’ve got to do better, but we had our chances.”

The Lakers did. They had an entire half to stave off Nikola Jokic and Murray, but in a hostile environment, just weren’t able to get it done. In short, Game 1 proved the Lakers’ inability to win while playing from behind, and Game 2 proved the Nuggets’ ability to do that exact thing.

So, what about Game 3? How can Los Angeles knock off the defending champions after two straight losses?

The answer may seem like a simple ask, but is much more complicated. After all, a team losing 10 games in a row to another suggests a clear disparity in talent, but that’s not the case. Los Angeles has talent, with James, Anthony Davis, D’Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves, among others. Whether beating Denver is possible isn’t the issue.

But if the Lakers do want to steal a game, or come back in the series for that matter, they have their work cut out for them.

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) calls for a review in the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets during game two of the first half during the 2024 NBA playoffs at Ball Arena.
Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

First of all, the Lakers should get some credit. After being swept by the Nuggets a year ago, they showed some promise over the first two games of this series. It didn’t look like Los Angeles was out of the reigning champs’ league, especially in Game 2.

If the Lakers wants to steal Game 3 at home, they will certainly have to bring the same level of offense they did on Monday night—well, at least in the first three quarters. Before the fourth quarter commenced, Davis had north of 30 points, Russell was shooting the lights out and James was making circus and-1s.

The 20-point lead Los Angeles built wasn’t luck by any means. But neither was the collapse.

The Lakers went cold as the Nuggets found their stride, victim to a 14-5 run entering the fourth quarter. Ball Arena began to buzz again after it was silenced, and by the the crowd it was at its loudest, it Los Angeles that went silent.

Step one for the Lakers is achieving that same offensive production without a cold streak. Yes, they showed they were capable of shutting down Jokic for periods of time, but between the other weapons Denver has and their veteran experience, going cold is never an option—especially down the stretch. Davis has played a huge role in Los Angeles’ success this season, so him notching another 30-point performance is almost going to be required for Los Angeles to beat the Nuggets.

And then there’s Russell.

Russell lost his favor with Lakers faithful a year ago after a large disparity between his shooting abilities in the regular season and playoffs. Where he was an X-factor in the regular season in transition and behind the arc, he wasn’t nearly as impactful in the postseason.

That was the case again in Game 1, but in Game 2, Russell’s hot streak to begin the game allowed the Lakers to get out to a strong start and build a lead. Russell called his own shot after the first contest, stating his “excitement” to hit the floor and prove himself, and that he did. He finished Game 2 with 23 points on 7-11 shooting, and if Los Angeles wants to compete and get a win on its home floor, he’ll need to perform similarly.

Lakers guard Austin Reaves (15) drives to the basket
© Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The bench unit will also play a large role in a potential Lakers victory. Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura were largely silent on Tuesday, combining for just 12 points. Granted, they didn’t need to put up major stat lines with Russell shooting the way he was, Davis dominating down low and James running the show. But when Los Angeles’ cold streak hit, Reaves and Hachimura were nowhere to be found.

Beating Denver ins’t an easy task. It takes a team-wide effort to even come close, and while the Lakers flaunted their stars Monday night, big nights from James and Davis couldn’t get them over the hump — and that’s where the final piece of the puzzle comes in.

Instead of focusing on the next game of the series after a stunning Game 2 loss, Los Angeles instead took an approach seldom recommended. James, discussing the end of the game and a play where Russell missed a layup due to a slap to the face, went at the NBA and its replay center.

“I don’t understand what’s going on in the [NBA] replay center, to be honest,” he said. “D-Lo clearly gets hit in the face on a drive. What the f— do we have a replay center for if it’s going to go [like that]? It makes no sense to me.”

Sure, the frustration makes sense. Two-minute reports reveal plenty of missed calls or fouls that have no repercussions. But perhaps a smarter way of expressing that frustration would be to take a game against the Nuggets instead of treating it like an excuse.

Denver has had Los Angeles’ number for years in the postseason, which has been proven in many ways beyond simple calls. And, frankly, the Lakers would be lucky to play the Nuggets as close as they did Monday night after being in front.

The path to beating Denver is arduous, especially when starting in a two-game hole. But the Lakers do have what it takes to win. They just have to prove it.

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