Nuggets fall to Lakers 124-121 after missed free throw prevents a late-game comeback

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Even though Monday offered a glimpse of a potentially riveting playoff matchup against the Lakers, the Nuggets had a bigger picture in mind.

With starters Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. on the bench in a nod to preservation, Denver rode its reserves the entire fourth quarter. And they might’ve won had Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma not drained a game-winning 3-pointer in Bol Bol’s face that left just 0.4 seconds remaining.

Though the Nuggets fell 124-121, dropping to 46-25 on the season, it was a game Denver was willing to concede. The lineup of Bol, Mason Plumlee, Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier and Keita Bates-Diop gave LeBron James and Anthony Davis everything they could handle. James finished with 29 points and Davis added 27.

“Couldn’t be more proud of our group,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “I thought we played extremely hard against the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. … For us to sit our starters that whole fourth quarter and to have guys on the bench out there giving them all they could handle and lose a heartbreaker is always tough.”

The Nuggets fell 1.5 games behind the Clippers in the race for the No. 2 seed. They’ll face the other L.A. team on Wednesday.

Dozier, who missed a free throw that could’ve given the Nuggets a late lead, registered 18 points off the bench and Morris, another fellow backup guard, added 14. Among the starters, Porter led all scorers with 15 points, Murray had 14 and Jokic had 12.

With only two seeding games left before the postseason arrives, the Nuggets were still missing veterans Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (knee) to injuries. A source confirmed TNT’s report that the Nuggets are hopeful both can return for Friday’s final seeding game against Toronto. Denver was also missing veteran forward Jerami Grant (knee) after he played 47 minutes in their recent win over Utah.

If they were able to play, it would mark the first time since they arrived in Orlando in early July that the team was fully healthy.

The Nuggets fed off Murray’s energy in the third quarter. Owing his new, stronger physique, Murray bulldozed his way into the paint undeterred by his size disadvantage. He helped pace a 29-point quarter, where the Nuggets’ defense finally became engaged. With their reserves on the floor, Denver closed the quarter on an 8-1 run to tie it at 88 heading into the fourth.

Both the Nuggets and the Lakers had blemishes they sought to erase before the playoffs arrive in a week. Denver’s defense, and in particular its 3-point defense, has been abysmal so far in Orlando. The Lakers, meanwhile, entered Monday with the worst 3-point shooting percentage, by far, in the bubble at 24%.

And to Malone’s chagrin, the Nuggets’ lackluster perimeter defense made them look like snipers. The Lakers buried 14-of-29 from 3-point range.

Regardless of Monday’s outcome, Malone was adamant that he wouldn’t put too much stock into what he saw against the Lakers.

“We have three games to go,” Malone said prior to the game. “How we’re going to approach those games is try to keep guys in a rhythm, monitor their minutes. … So, this game is an opportunity for us to compete, to get better, go out there and be prepared to win, like we do every night, but whether we win or lose, I’m not going to look too much into this because of who’s available and us closely monitoring how much we’re playing our key players.”

In particular, Malone was wary of extended minutes for Jokic, Murray, and Porter. Murray played 39 minutes in Saturday’s double overtime win over Utah, which marked his first game against NBA competition in nearly five months. Though Murray said after the win that his minutes were supposed to be limited to 22, Malone said Monday their “suggested” target was 28.

“He was sore yesterday, he’s a little sore today,” Malone said. “But I think, as I mentioned earlier, just finding ways to keeping our team in rhythm and getting a guy like Jamal in rhythm as well as getting guys used to playing with Jamal once again. It has been a long time since we’ve had that.”

Murray looked healthy over the first two quarters, which was more important than any other outcome from the Utah win.

Davis ended the first half with an exclamation mark dunk to give the Lakers a 64-59 halftime lead. He and James combined for 30 points, imposing their will inside the paint and from the perimeter.

Jokic, who managed just seven points, three assists and one rebound in the first half, was overwhelmed trying to keep Davis off the glass.

For the sixth game in a row, Porter’s 3-point shooting added a new dimension to Denver’s offense. He had a team-high 13 points at halftime, including 3-of-3 from outside.

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