LOS ANGELES — On the doorstep of the franchise’s first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets were loose.
During pregame warmups a couple of hours before tip-off they were joking around, with DeAndre Jordan adding vocal exclamations to players’ dunks, and Jeff Green jokingly pushing around a coach trying to post him up. Nikola Jokić closed his warmup with a dunk against the poor, undersized assistant tasked with providing token defense — then Joker laughingly hit him with the “too small” taunt.
Maybe the Nuggets were a little too casual to start Game 4 Monday night as LeBron James and the Lakers got off to a 15-point halftime lead. However, the Nuggets found their focus in the second half, they were once again more clutch than the Lakers and pulled out the 113-111 win.
The Nuggets are headed to the franchise’s first NBA Finals (which do not start until June 1), while the Lakers are headed to an interesting offseason.
Here are three takeaways from the closeout game.
1) LeBron was not ready for his 20th season to end, carried Lakers
At age 38, in his 20th season, LeBron James was the best player on the floor of a conference finals game.
Think about that for a second.
He played all but four seconds and almost willed his team to a victory (like he did for lesser teams 15 years ago). LeBron came out on fire shooting 7-of-9 on his way to 21 first-quarter points. He kept rolling and finished the first half scoring 31 points — his highest-scoring half in the playoffs ever — on 11-of-13 shooting, including 4-of-4 from beyond the arc.
How well were things going for LeBron early? Everything was going in, even his passes.
BRON REALLY HIT THIS 😅 pic.twitter.com/wJtdGWO1kz
— ESPN (@espn) May 23, 2023
LeBron’s effort and playing with force dragged the Lakers into the game despite it feeling like some of his teammates were mentally already on vacation already, down 0-3 in the series. The Lakers were getting the ball into the paint with dribble penetration, getting stops and running, making good decisions with their passes, and doing the things coach Darvin Ham had hoped they would do all series. The Lakers led 73-58 at the half, with an insane 156.5 offensive rating for the first 24 minutes.
Lakers fans were daring to dream a little…
2) In the second half, the Nuggets showed why they are the better team
The Denver Nuggets are just better than these Lakers.
That quickly became evident after halftime when the Nuggets went on a 23-6 run, quickly making it a close game, and then Denver took its first lead at 4:39 left on an and-one from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
“Probably the best team that we’ve played since we’ve been together for our four years,” LeBron said of the Nuggets.
“They don’t have holes in their system. They’re not missing anything,” Austin Reaves said. “You got two guys — you got Jamal and you got Jokic — and then you have, literally, if you get to hand pick a team as far as system fit, this is it. You got a cutter in Gordon, you got guys that can really shoot the ball, and then you got like, not dirty players but like ‘do the dirty work’ stuff in Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and you even go to their bench. It’s really just a really good basketball team all in all.”
After LeBron emptied his tank in the first half he had to pick his spots in the second half, while at the same time the Nuggets were far more dialed in on defense. Plus, Jokić got rolling on his way to a 30-point, 14-rebound and 13-assist triple-double. That is Jokic’s eighth triple-double these playoffs, the most for one player in one postseason ever. He has now averaged a triple-double over two consecutive series.
Nikola Jokic, Western Conference Finals MVP and recipient of the Earvin 'Magic' Johnson Trophy, shines in the Game 4 win!
30 PTS, 14 REB, 13 AST, 3 BLK 🔥
Game 1 of the #NBAFinals presented by @YouTubeTV is Thursday, 6/1 a 8:30 PM ET on ABC! pic.twitter.com/4vHSLjRxzr
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
Jokić hit what proved to be the game-winner on a drive and an awkward runner across the lane.
JOKER ON A MISSION.
NUGGETS SEEK AN NBA FINALS APPEARANCE.
31.3 SECONDS LEFT ON ESPN🗣 https://t.co/u2YxjMyS2y pic.twitter.com/8V8WboCue0
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
LeBron had a chance to tie as time expired but Jamal Murray read the play — he said postgame he remembered it as something the Lakers ran before against Indiana — slid down as the help defender and tied up LeBron, preserving the 113-111 win.
The @nuggets advance to the #NBAFinals presented by YouTube TV!
LAL: 111 pic.twitter.com/sJk3xAHQ95
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2023
Murray added 25 points and Aaron Gordon had his best game of the series, finishing with 22 points and playing good defense.
The Nuggets deserve to celebrate a historic accomplishment — the franchise’s first trip to an NBA Finals. It also validates Jokic, Murray and the organization’s faith in them. Monday night was the best night in Nuggets franchise history.
3) LeBron’s cryptic postgame comments will dominate the next day’s stories
Celebrating the Nuggets’ accomplishments will have to wait (with more than a week before the Finals start, there is time). For now, LeBron will dominate the headlines — and not for his 40-point game.
Near the end of his postgame press conference, LeBron James answered a question about how he personally evaluates the season.
.@KingJames: “Personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.” pic.twitter.com/RYOoj3H9Qa
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 23, 2023
“It was a very challenging season for me, for our ballclub, and obviously we know whatever went on early on [in the season]…” LeBron said.” It was cool, a pretty cool ride. But I don’t know. I don’t know. I think it was okay. I don’t like to say it’s a successful year because I don’t play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career. You know, I don’t get a kick out of making a Conference [Finals] appearance. I’ve done it, a lot. And it’s not fun to me to not be able to be a part of getting to the Finals.
“But we’ll see. We’ll see. We’ll see what happens going forward. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about to be honest. I’ve got a lot to think about to be honest. Just for me personally going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.
Did he mean retirement? Really? Other reports say yes.
LeBron James to ESPN on his thought process going into the offseason:
Q: When you say you got to think about stuff, what thread should we be pulling on that?
A: "If I want to continue to play."
Q: As in next year?
Q: You would walk away?
A: "I got to think about it."
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 23, 2023
Inside real-time in the press conference, at least to my ears, LeBron’s comments read as a combination of exhaustion, frustration, and a shot across the bow of the Lakers’ front office that they need to go all-in on next season.
The exhaustion and frustration were obvious to anyone who watched the game — he just played all but four seconds of a 48-minute game and dropped 40 points while carrying his team, which was not enough. And remember all of that was on a sore foot that he likely has to have surgery on after the season.
Which leads to his not-so-subtle message to GM Rob Pelinka and the front office. LeBron can summon up the occasional legendary performance as he did in Game 4, but he can’t carry the team like he had to for too much of this season. Anthony Davis is Anthony Davis, and LeBron wants more help. Elite help. (Kyrie Irving was courtside for Game 4 and is a free agent. LeBron has played with him before, and while league sources say Lakers management is hesitant to add Irving to the mix — and he most likely re-signs in Dallas anyway — it was hard to ignore the imagery.)
The Lakers will have to pay more than they want to keep Austin Reaves, and they will likely re-sign Rui Hachimura too after his performance these playoffs. LeBron’s postgame comments loom more as a threat to push management into bold moves beyond keeping Reaves and Rui — and to spend, not just try to do more with less next season.
Don’t bet on LeBron retiring, especially if he thinks he can play in the league with his son Bronny in a couple of years. But being swept out of the playoffs will make a man re-evaluate things.