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Denver Nuggets unravel in second half of loss at Los Angeles Lakers

The Denver Post — Gina Mizell The Denver Post

March 14--LOS ANGELES -- Michael Malone could have pointed to Lonzo Ball's 3-pointer with 7:40 to play, which gave the Lakers a one-point lead. Or Kyle Kuzma's back-to-back long balls, which extended Los Angeles' advantage to seven points. Or Isaiah Thomas' nifty move on Nikola Jokic for the driving layup, before a thunderous dunk that clinched a Lakers victory.

Instead, the Nuggets coach focused on the stretch in which things first unraveled for his team, allowing a double-digit lead to dwindle to five points. The Lakers then used that momentum to race past the Nuggets 112-103 in front of an emotionally charged Staples Center crowd Tuesday night.

"You build yourself a decent lead, only to see it evaporate so quickly," Malone said. "That's the disappointing thing ... The group that comes in to close those quarters has to come in and understand what they're going into. They have to execute better. They have to defend better. And they have to have a much better sense of urgency.

"I thought we had some guys out there in that end of the third quarter that were not ready to play, and that hurt us to close that quarter in a big way."

BOX SCORE: Nuggets 112, Lakers 103

The loss was a blow to Denver's playoff positioning in a tightly packed Western Conference. The Nuggets (37-31) dropped from ninth to 10th in the standings, one game back of the three-way tie between the Clippers, Spurs and Jazz heading into a stretch in which Denver will play seven of their next eight games on the road.

On the floor at the end of the third? Devin Harris, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Trey Lyles and Mason Plumlee. After a four-point play by Jokic and transition layup by Chandler pushed Denver's lead to 80-67 at the 2:21 mark, the Lakers closed on a 10-2 surge and then began the fourth on a 17-7 spurt to take the lead for good. The Nuggets got within three points at 102-99 when Chandler -- who matched his season-high with 26 points and added 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals -- a layup by Julius Randle (26 points, 13 rebounds) sparked a 6-0 spurt to put the game out of reach with 1:09 to play.

The Nuggets failed in several statistical categories that Malone identified as key before the game. The Lakers out-rebounded Denver 52-44. Los Angeles dominated in second-chance points (20-5) and fastbreak points (20-7). The Nuggets committed 20 turnovers that resulted in 21 Los Angeles points.

"Too many breakdowns on both ends of the floor," Malone said.

And yet, Denver clawed out of a 13-point first-quarter hole to lead by the same margin in the third. A Denver team that has been defensively challenged all season held the Lakers to 35.6 percent shooting in the first half (including 3-of-18 in the second quarter) and to 67 until that third-quarter push. Jamal Murray (18 points, six rebounds, four assists) unleashed his "blue arrow" celebration when he drained three long-range shots in the third, combatting the fans that booed him every time he touched the ball and disparagingly chanted his name late because Lakers coach Luke Walton said Murray engaged in "disrespectful" trash talk at the end of Friday's Nuggets win. Jokic totaled 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists despite playing just nine first-half minutes after picking up his third foul early in the second quarter. But Kuzma scored 24 of his 26 points in the first half, while Thomas scored 12 of his 23 in the fourth quarter.

In this wild playoff race, every defeat can feel catastrophic. Six postseason contenders played Tuesday. Denver was the only team that lost.

Malone could have pointed to the bevy of highlight-worthy plays the Lakers made in the waning minutes to seal the victory. Instead, the coach highlighted -- or lowlighted -- when things first unraveled for the Nuggets at the end of the third.

"We let them back in the game," Murray said. "That was on us."


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