In the end, Lakers big man Anthony Davis was outdueled by Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, and that made the difference in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals Monday night.
In the end, changing the lineup and starting forward Rui Hachimura and point guard Dennis Schroder in place of forward Jarred Vanderbilt and point guard D’Angelo Russell didn’t make enough of a difference for the Lakers in a 113-111 loss.
In the end, even though the Lakers showed how much fight they had, it wasn’t enough to prevent them from getting swept in the best-of-seven series and seeing their season end.
Jokic was simply the best player in the series, producing his third triple-double in four games. He had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists despite committing five fouls and allowed the Nuggets to pull out the win after trailing by 15.
Over the course of the four games, Jokic averaged 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists. He shot 50.6% from the field overall and 47.1% from three-point range.
As a result, the Nuggets center was named the Magic Johnson Western Conference finals most valuable player. He is a big reason why Denver is going to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
When asked what Jokic proved to him in the series, Lakers star LeBron James, who played all but 4.3 seconds of the game, said, “Nothing.”
“I know how great he is,” said James, who had 40 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. “I know how great Jokic is. There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way, a certain way that I like to play the game as well, and he’s one of them where you are always off-balance when you are guarding a player like that because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen. There’s not many guys in our league like that.
“So, you already knew you was going against a beast once the series started, and not only just about his game. Everybody [talks about] his stats, but I don’t think a lot of people talk about, like, this part of his game [is cerebral]. Maybe it’s not talked about it because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”
Jokic made the difference when the game hung in the balance, when the Nuggets needed that shot, when the Lakers were trying to hold on and force a Game 5.
Davis was all over Jokic, pressuring him all over the court. But with the 24-second shot clock winding down, Jokic bullied his way past Davis for a basket for a 113-111 Nuggets lead with 51.1 seconds left.
It turned out to be the game’s final points.
“When you have a guy like Jokic, who as big as he is but also as cerebral as he is, you can’t really make many mistakes versus a guy like that,” James said. “And even when you guard him for one of the best possessions that you think you can guard him, he puts the ball behind his head Larry Bird style and shoots it 50 feet in the air and it goes in, like he did four or five times this series. So, you do like this to him [tip your cap].”
Davis scored 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and also finished the game with 14 rebounds and three blocks.
He was three for three from the field in the fourth and four for four from the free-throw line.
After Davis made two free throws to pull the Lakers to within 111-109 with 1:52 left, he pressured Jokic into throwing up a wild shot that hit the top of the backboard for a turnover with 1:22 remaining. Davis then sank two free throws to tie the score at 111 with 1:13 left.
Davis did his part as best he could.
“At the end of the day, he competed,” Lakers coach Davin Ham said. “And he kept at it, and he had some good moments late. The way we play, it’s an equal-opportunity offense, and guys are going to want to push a guy on. They see Bron going and making shots, then no one is begging for touches.”
Hachimura had 10 points and seven rebounds in 41-plus minutes. Schroder scored 13 points on five-for-13 shooting, including three for six on three-pointers, and had five assists. His job was to try to slow down Nuggets guard Jamal Murray.
He really didn’t. Murray had 25 points.
Russell scored four points off the bench, and Vanderbilt didn’t play.