DENVER — The images of LeBron James losing the basketball as he went up for a breakaway reverse dunk, of getting a point-blank shot stuffed by the rim and missing another layup late in the fourth quarter will haunt the Los Angeles Lakers until the next game.
Those missed shots didn’t decide the outcome of Denver’s 108-103 victory over the Lakers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Thursday. But they were emblematic of a larger concern. Do the Lakers have enough to overcome a 2-0 deficit?
Enough talent? Enough stamina?
Fortunes change quickly in a seven-game series, and James knows that as well as anyone.
"We improved from Game 1 to Game 2,” James said, "and if we can do the same thing from Game 2 to Game 3, we put ourselves in a position to win.”
James complimented the Lakers’ defense, which held Denver’s potent offense to 43.8% shooting. But that didn’t stop Nikola Jokic from getting a 23-point, 17-rebound, 12-assist triple-double or Jamal Murray from a game-high 37 points, including 27 in the second half and 23 in the fourth quarter on 6-for-7 shooting.
"It's no surprise to anybody, he's done it before," James said. "Hate to be on the other side of it, but I don't feel like we had many breakdowns when he was doing what he was doing. He made shots, and sometimes it's a make-or-miss league."
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But the Lakers aren’t going to win many games at this stage with James and Anthony Davis scoring a combined 40 points on 13-for-34 shooting. They might be able to get away with James going for 22 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, but they can’t win with Anthony Davis scoring 18 points on 4-for-15 shooting with four turnovers along with 14 rebounds, four assists and four steals.
“I got the same looks,” Davis said. “A lot of them were just short tonight. I'll be better.”
He had 40 points in Game 1 and followed it with a poor offensive game, a trend that has become noticeable in the playoffs. One great game. One bad game.
“I'm going to continue to shoot those shots and I got to be better, more efficient, help the team win,” Davis said. “So, I'll be better.”
Davis was 3-for-9 shooting in the second half, and James is 0-for-10 on 3-pointers in the series. His overall statline looked fine, but it didn't provide the game-altering impact. They don’t need anyone to tell them that’s not good enough in the conference finals.
This isn’t easy for the Lakers. Their opponent isn’t Memphis or Golden State. The Nuggets are the No. 1 seed in the West and have been since December. Their offense is tremendous, their defense improved and two-time MVP Jokic is dominating in the playoffs.
He’s a bear, and not just your average bear. The 6-11, 284-pound Serbian is the kind who scores, passes, rebounds and is averaging a triple-double through 13 playoff games.
The Lakers have defended Jokic with multiple players — Davis, James, Rui Hachimura — and that’s coach Darvin Ham’s plan.
“Joker is one of those guys, you got to change matchups,” Ham said. "You got to change coverages, and I won't get into any details about what we plan to do going forward, but that's just the way it is. In general terms, he's going to make you work, he's going to make you go in your bag of tricks to try to slow him down."
James, 38, claimed fatigue wasn’t a factor. "If you're not tired in the postseason, I mean, everybody's tired," he said.
The Lakers lost the two games in Denver by a combined 11 points. They don’t think they’re that far from a victory.
“What you take out of it is the fact that this is not the NCAA tournament, it's the first team to four wins,” James said. “We have an opportunity to go home and play great basketball and hold serve. So until a team beats you four times then you always have an opportunity to come out of it. So that's the confidence that we should have.
“I know it's going to be a tough hill to climb up, but we still have an opportunity to play good basketball and play the best basketball of the series in Game 3.”
Even with James and Davis not having great games, they didn’t leave discouraged.
Lakers guard Austin Reaves said, “Who knows where we’d be without them.”
The Lakers are about to find out how far they can go with James and Davis. And if they’re not better, it won’t be any further.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers need more from LeBron, AD or Western Conference finals are over