Lakers takeaways: What more can LeBron James do? Was the officiating off?

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) drives past Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, during the second half in Game 2 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Monday, April 22, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Here are six takeaways from the Lakers101-99 loss to Denver in Game 2 Monday night that put them in a 2-0 hole in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.

One out, one in

There was a bit of cruelty late Monday night in Denver, the Lakers’ and the Nuggets’ late-game fates summed up by a pair of shots with wildly different degrees of difficulty.

First, with the score tied, LeBron James stood all alone at the three-point line. Whether or not Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got pushed or got his feet tangled up was irrelevant. He was on the court, legs in the air, left to watch.

James, who had just wrapped his best three-point shooting season of his career, had already drilled two in the fourth quarter, and neither look was as good as this one.

Read more: Lakers lose to Nuggets in Game 2 heartbreaker on Jamal Murray buzzer-beater

And he missed.

“It rimmed in,” he said, “And it rimmed out."

After the miss (and the Michael Porter Jr. rebound), Jamal Murray ripped the Lakers’ hearts out by hitting a fading jumper over Anthony Davis right in front of the Nuggets bench. Davis switched onto Murray after a Nikola Jokic screen, the Lakers counting on their best defender to stay with a big-time clutch player.

The moment, captured in videos and photos that will haunt the Lakers, was electric.

“When they came down, they wanted to get their two best players into action, which they did,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “And, you know, Jamal Murray hit a tough shot. AD, fading away baseline, to his right. AD, outstretched arm, great contest.

“Kid hit a tough shot."

And put the Lakers in a tough spot.

Another wasted opportunity

The Lakers leave Denver having squandered 32 points' worth of leads in the first two games of the series, just an awful feeling for a team that’s lost 10 straight to the Nuggets.

Following Game 1, there was some talk in the media that the Lakers had played well and left with nothing to show for it. Internally, that wasn’t the frustration.

They knew they hadn’t played well — neither had Denver — and if the Lakers had been slightly better, they maybe could’ve won.

Monday, they had to be sure of it.

For 26 minutes, they controlled every aspect of the game. For the last 22, they looked totally lost.

They had 17 assists in the first half and only seven in the second, one sign that Denver stagnated the Lakers’ offense once again after halftime.

“We missed shots,” James said. “We got to score versus this team. We missed shots. We still got great looks. We just missed them. And they made it."

It’s probably not that simple.

The adjustment game

If you’re looking for an obvious thing that happened strategically in the game, you can point to Nuggets coach Michael Malone’s decision to pull Jokic off Davis once the Lakers went up 20, keeping Davis out of the Lakers’ primary pick-and-roll sets (with Aaron Gordon now covering him).

The end result was only seven shot attempts for Davis in the second half (and one in the fourth). Rui Hachimura, who took on a lot of the screening, struggled to score at the rim.

“We were trying to take advantage of certain matchups and bring certain guys within their defense to put them into actions,” Ham said. “Sometimes when you do that, it works out smooth. Sometimes you don’t finish the play. And by that I mean, we get the matchup that we want, they have to double team something, someone is left open, miss an open shot or miss a point-blank layup. Things like that happen.”

Like it has so many times in their recent meetings, Denver just seemed a step ahead.

The little things

When a team loses at the buzzer, the final shot and final sequences get the most scrutiny. But how about the offensive rebound and put-back basket that Christian Braun got in the first half when all five Lakers on the floor stood and watched Jokic’s prayer scrape the front of the rim? What about missed layups from Hachimura, James and Spencer Dinwiddie? What about the open corner looks Austin Reaves and Gabe Vincent couldn’t connect on?

It all matters.

The gripes

Postgame, the Lakers were disappointed with the officiating, the Lakers shooting just 13 free throws to 17 for Denver.

“It's tough, some tough calls, some tough non-calls,” Ham said. “But you can't use any of that as an excuse. You gotta go out there and be ready to make plays, whether the whistle gets blown or not. It's getting real tricky. Go through the season, games being officiated one way and then getting the playoffs, and then it's like, I guess it's left up to the interpretation of the three individual guys that's doing the job out there.

“But all that said, you just have to know that, yeah, it stings.”

D’Angelo Russell said postgame that “everyone saw” one play in particular when a foul called on Porter late in the third got overturned via review. One angle shown on the broadcast appeared to show Russell getting hit in the face by Porter.

“I don't understand what's going on in the replay center, to be honest,” James said. “... D-Lo clearly gets hit in the face on a drive. What ... do we have a replay center for if it's going to go [like that]. It doesn't make sense to me. It makes no sense to me. It bothers me. ... And then I just saw what happened with the Sixers-Knicks game, too. Like, what are we doing? ... It's ... stupid."

What’s next?

Protect home,” James said after. “That's where my mind-set goes. And obviously, the only game that matters now is Game 3 and how we can get better. How we can figure this team out. So Game 3 is where my mind-set is."

Read more: Plaschke: Dagger! Lakers' epic collapse vs. Nuggets could send them reeling into summer

The Lakers have done enough to feel like they’re still in this series despite being down 0-2 — “I liked where we were at,” Russell repeated after. They’ve also shown that they can be stopped, that Denver’s defense has them solved when the game matters most.

So it all comes down to Thursday, the Lakers potentially getting Jarred Vanderbilt back after an intense workout Monday morning. Christian Wood, reportedly, is also close to being available.

“Just gotta focus on Game 3,” Davis said. “We've shown that we're more than capable. We have stretches where we just don't know what we're doing on both ends of the floor. And those are the ones that cost us. So we have two days to get it right and come ready to win Game 3 on Thursday.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.