Back when Luke Walton played with Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend used to smoke cigars before playing in Denver as a way to prepare himself for the assault on his lungs that would come from playing a basketball game in the city's thin air.
Walton didn't recommend his own players do that, but he knew their start wouldn't be easy in a city that sits 5,280 feet above sea level. He expected the Lakers' bodies to adjust as the game wore on and for his team to be able to overcome a slow start.
For a time, the Lakers did, but not for long enough. Denver rarely loses at home, and even shorthanded they didn't on Saturday night. The Lakers didn't score for the game's final 3:57 and the Nuggets beat them, 115-100. Denver improved to 13-9, with a 10-2 mark at home. The Lakers dropped to 8-14, and 2-8 on the road.
Brandon Ingram led the Lakers with 20 points, making it the fifth game this season he has scored at least 20 points. It was also the first time in his career that Ingram has scored 20 or more points in back-to-back games. Julius Randle and Brook Lopez each contributed 15 points. Kyle Kuzma scored 13, nine of them in the fourth quarter, and Jordan Clarkson scored 12. Lonzo Ball finished with nine points, nine rebounds and five assists, and was assessed a technical foul in the fourth quarter.
Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray led all scorers with 28 points.
Having played in this altitude himself, Walton set to work early in the day preparing his team for it, putting them through extra running during shootaround.
He was wary, too, of a team that had just suffered a major injury -- another lesson from his playing days. In Walton's experience, teams who lose major players often show up energized in their next game, with players who don't get much playing time eager to show their worth. The theory might have applied better were the Nuggets down only one big man, rather than three.
Denver lost center Nikola Jokic to an ankle injury on Thursday, after losing forward Paul Millsap to a wrist injury he suffered the last time the Lakers played the Nuggets. Wilson Chandler, another starting big man, was out with a lower back injury.
Once the Lakers recovered their bearings, they took advantage of their comparative front-court health. In the first half, the Lakers scored 38 points in the paint while the Nuggets only had 18. Lakers center Brook Lopez, who had failed to reach double figures in the previous four games, scored 10 points by halftime.
That edge in the paint all but disappeared after halftime, but the Lakers still kept the Nuggets at bay. They led by two heading into the fourth quarter and then extended that lead to seven on the strength of their second unit.
Late in the fourth quarter, Gary Harris stole the ball from Jordan Clarkson out of a timeout and fed Will Barton for a Nuggets lead, 100-98. The Lakers tied it with a basket by Ingram with 3:57 left, but that was the last time they scored in the game.
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