Plaschke: Dagger! Lakers' epic collapse vs. Nuggets could send them reeling into summer


The collapse ended with a punch to the face, a blow to the ears, a dagger through the heart.

The collapse of a million Laker mistakes ended with one Denver Nuggets masterpiece, the ugliness of pretenders trumped by the beauty of champions.

Jamal Murray hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer, Ball Arena shook with an avalanche of glee, Anthony Davis fell backward into the Denver bench in desperation, and it was over.

This game. This nightmare. This series?

On a night they held a dominant 20-point lead in the third quarter against a dormant Nuggets team that finally appeared on the verge of vulnerability, it was the Lakers who folded, the Lakers who wilted, the Lakers who disappeared.

Again. Again. Again.

Of their 10 consecutive losses to the Nuggets, this was surely the worst, a 101-99 defeat pried out of the jaws of victory in Monday’s Game 2 of the first round of the NBA playoffs.

First round, probably last round for the Lakers, who trail two games to none and now must win four of five games against the defending champions to survive.

All while thinking … they had them, they solved them, they were going to finally beat them.

Then it all went up in the smoke created by a team that, unlike the Lakers, fires harder when the stakes get hotter.

The final margin marked the Nuggets’ first lead since the game’s first moments, yet it will be a lead that will stay with the Lakers all summer.

“There was a point where we had full control of the game … we just got to finish,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham. “We didn’t finish well … the biggest thing for us is to finish.”

Instead, they are probably finished.

“Obviously, we gave up a 20-point lead and that’s unfortunate … we gotta do better with that,” said LeBron James.

With 10 minutes left in the third quarter, the Lakers led, 68-48. Davis was unstoppable, D’Angelo Russell was unbelievable and James was James.

The Nuggets were barely making a third of their shots, Nikola Jokic seemed hobbled from an earlier fall, the crowd was booing and the game felt over.

An hour later, the series felt over, the massive change of fortune wrought by both the inspired effort from the Nuggets and insipid play of the Lakers.

With Davis suddenly stifled by new defender Aaron Gordon and the Lakers unable to make the appropriate adjustments, the Nuggets methodically closed the gap to 10 at the end of the quarter and then blew the Lakers away when it counted.

During a fourth quarter in which they outscored the Lakers by a dozen, Denver made its last seven shots while the Lakers missed three of their last six shots.

During a fourth quarter in which Murray scored 14 points, Davis scored zero points, took one shot, had one rebound and was basically nonexistent.

During a fourth quarter in which the Lakers had two assists, the Nuggets had six assists, a true team competing against what appeared to be five individuals.

During a fourth quarter that featured James at his spectacular best — he scored a dozen points and made every big play — the rest of the Lakers combined for eight points while mostly standing around, seemingly waiting for the King to save them.

He’s not enough to save them, not this year, and maybe never again here. He’s not getting younger and his supporting cast isn’t getting better and right about now, this whole Laker deal just stinks.

They’re on the verge of losing to Denver in the playoffs for a second consecutive year with no big summer changes in sight. There’s seemingly no way James is going to opt out of a $51.4-million salary this summer. There’s seemingly no way the Lakers are going to trade Davis after his best season here.

They’re going nowhere … and nowhere never felt so awful as Monday night, when they scored all of 40 points in the second half.

“We just missed a few shots down that stretch when they were throwing haymakers, simple as that,” said Russell.

The final haymaker epitomized the Nuggets’ greatness, as Michael Porter Jr. powerfully rebounded a deep rushed miss by James with 16 seconds remaining.

“Had a wide-open look and it rimmed out,” said James. “I mean, it rimmed in and rimmed out.”

The Nuggets immediately got the ball to Murray. Their veteran guard had missed 13 of his first 16 shots, but it didn’t matter. He was taking the last shot. The Nuggets knew it, and set it up for him to heave a 15-footer over the arms of an onrushing Davis.

“In those situations it’s important to be organized,” said Jokic.

The Lakers, meanwhile, spent most of the final quarter appearing disorganized, and they finally paid the price when Murray’s shot dropped as he fell backward so dramatically, he never saw the ball go through the net.

“I saw the ball over the rim, I heard everybody screaming, I knew it went in,” Murray said.

Meanwhile, the charging Davis ended up flat on his back in the Nuggets bench area, after which James ran over to pick him up, and both men trudged quietly off the court and through the madness.

“They made some tough shots … they made some really tough shots,” said Davis.

Now comes the really tough part for the Lakers, who must somehow shrug off this devastation and prepare for Game 3 Thursday at Crypto.com Arena.

“We just got to come focused,” Ham said. “We can’t look in the rearview mirror. We got to stay focused on the windshield.”

But the Lakers’ relationship with that windshield has once again become problematic.

Right now, once again, they’re the bug.



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