Lakers' defensive woes hit new low vs. Nuggets in biggest loss of the season

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, works the ball inside as Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, works the ball inside on Lakers guard Avery Bradley, left, and center Dwight Howard during the first half of the Lakers' 133-96 loss Saturday. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

LeBron James’ body slumped forward as his eyes first gazed to the corner and then across the floor to the bench.

In the third quarter of their 133-96 loss to the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers found themselves totally out of sorts, the slender-limbed Malik Monk, of all people, left to guard the NBA’s reigning most valuable player, center Nikola Jokic.

James sagged deeply into the paint from the corner, moving over to help, when Jokic eyed Jeff Green in the far corner. He zipped a pass and Green calmly swished a three with time to spare, yet another offensive possession ending with Denver scoring and the Lakers left looking confused.

If it wasn’t Green, it was Monte Morris or Aaron Gordon or Bones Hyland or Davon Reed or Will Barton — someone always open, ready to score on what’s rapidly become one of the worst units in the NBA.

“We got to make a decision — we just got to play hard,” Russell Westbrook said after the game. “Sometimes the schemes and how you play doesn’t really matter. You got to just play hard sometimes.”

It was the worst loss of the Lakers’ season, pushing them back below .500 and putting them on another three-game losing streak.

Since Anthony Davis’ injury, the Lakers have gotten progressively worse on that side of the ball, allowing opponents to score 127, 125 and 133 in their last three losses.

“We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and get our defense right,” coach Frank Vogel said.

Even with some optimism that Davis’ return from a sprained knee could occur soon enough (he’s set to be evaluated in the upcoming days), the Lakers’ problems seem larger than a lack of a talent.

Lakers star LeBron James shoots as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends during the first half.
Lakers star LeBron James shoots as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends during the first half. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

“Lakers can accept being outplayed but we deserve more than a lack of effort and no sense of urgency,” Lakers legend Magic Johnson said in a tweet. “Owner Jeanie Buss, you deserve better.”

“Everybody is entitled, in this world, to their opinion, regardless of what that it is. You can either take it and run with it or you can take it and put it in one ear and out the other or you can not respond to it,” Westbrook said.

“Magic’s entitled to his opinion. And he’s not here every day. He’s not around us every day. He’s not aware of kind of what’s going on internally with us and trying to figure things out. But I have no response to that.”

Dwight Howard echoed the sentiment following his postgame comments.

The Lakers have beaten just five teams that are currently above .500. Five of their next eight games are against teams with winning records.

Playing against a Denver team minus a star, Jamal Murray, and multiple role players because of illness and injury, the Lakers looked overmatched against Denver’s reserve unit filled with younger, hungrier players.

It all left the Lakers looking like the worst version of themselves, the version that so many predicted when the Lakers were assembled.

They were old. They were slow. And they weren’t quite sure how to play with Westbrook.

Following the lead of the Sacramento Kings, the Nuggets’ game operations team reveled in Westbrook’s shooting struggles, playing a snippet of “Ice, Ice Baby,” whenever he missed.

That Westbrook was actually much better from the field — he finished seven for 15 including his first made three this month — hardly mattered. He, James and Howard, who started with the Lakers facing Jokic, all found it easy enough to operate near the bucket against the lack of Denver rim protection. The Lakers still played from behind for nearly the entire game.

James finished with 25 points, Westbrook had 19 and Howard had 13 in his spot start, being cleared to play with a knee injury right before game time.

But seven Nuggets scored at least 10 points led by Hyland’s 27 and Green’s 26. Jokic had a triple-double with 17 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds.

Denver hit 23 threes — nine players made at least one while the Nuggets shot 57.5% from deep. The Lakers defense hadn’t allowed either of those numbers before Saturday.

The Lakers host Utah on Monday and Indiana on Wednesday before beginning a six-game trip, the team seemingly no closer to figuring things out than it was on opening night.

“It’s not good enough,” Vogel said.

When something went wrong on that day, the Lakers players were left to look around and wonder what went wrong. On Saturday in Denver, James and his teammates did the same, this time left searching to find the things that went right.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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