Jokic 1, AD 0: Nuggets’ MVP gets best of Lakers big man in first battle

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DENVER − One of the most gifted offensive basketball players in the world vs. one of the best defending big men in the world.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic vs. the Los Angeles Lakers’ Anthony Davis.

This is a two-way battle, too. Davis can put up points, and Jokic is a competent defender.

The anticipated matchup that may determine the outcome of the Western Conference finals exceeded the hype.

Jokic 1, AD 0.

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Jokic’s 34 points, 21 rebounds, 14 assists and two blocks were enough to overcome Davis’ 40 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in Denver’s 132-126 victory against Los Angeles in Game 1 Tuesday.

If the start of the series is a harbinger, this series will be competitive, tantalizing, entertaining with the potential to be a classic.

Jokic and Davis got it started the right way, especially Jokic, who had 19 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists at halftime.

“We always talk about an aggressive Nikola Jokic is a very effective Nikola Jokic. A hell of a job by him,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

The Lakers didn’t have many answers for Jokic, who began the game by dominating on the glass and finding open teammates when the Lakers double-teamed him. Then, as the Lakers began adjusting their defense, Jokic unleashed his scoring.

“When he felt there was one-on-one coverage, facing up and getting to the basket and using that understated athleticism to finish in traffic. That was great to see. He’s going to continue to have to do that at a high level,’ Malone said.

Jokic’s stat line was just the fourth 30-point, 20-rebound triple-double in NBA playoff history. Jokic has two of them, and Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain each have one.

“I just love playing with Jokic, willing passer, dominant big man down there,” Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “Just seeing him do what he do gets everybody else going, as well.”

Caldwell-Pope compared Jokic to LeBron James, saying the only difference is that James jumps higher than Jokic

“That’s really offensive,” Jokic said. “I’m joking. To be compared with one of the best ever or the best ever, I think it’s really cool. I don’t know. I think we don’t have a similar game. Maybe we have like a similar global game, if that makes any sense. We affect the game in different ways.”

Jokic’s 3-pointer with 5:24 left in the third quarter gave the Nuggets a 93-72 lead. It was part of a three-minute stretch in which Jokic had seven points and four assists.

However, the Lakers weren’t content to let Denver run away stress-free. Davis had 13 points in the third and nine in the fourth, and Los Angeles trailed 129-126 and had a chance to tie the score on James’ 3-point attempt with 45 seconds remaining.

In the Lakers’ comeback, they may have found a lineup that helps limit what Jokic can do. Los Angeles went big with James, Davis and Rui Hachimura on the court to counter Denver’s size. Hachimura had 17 points, defended Jokic and the Lakers were 10 points better than Denver with him on the court.

“Wanted to take (Davis) off as being the initial line of defense and hopefully Rui could turn him, make him go east-west a little bit more,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said, adding, “It’s not any one coverage that you’re going to be able to stay in versus that kid. There’s no one person that’s going to stop him. It has to be done by committee and you have to switch up. You have to switch up matchups at times and you have to switch up coverages.”

It’s more than just Jokic vs. Davis. James will have an impact as he did with his 26 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and Denver had six players score in double figures, including Jamal Murray with 31.

But so much of the series revolves around Jokic and Davis, and we saw the best of both in Game 1.

We’ll take more of that in Game 2 with the requisite strategic counters that both coaches employ.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY