LOS ANGELES — LeBron James tried everything he could, including scoring the most points in a playoff half in his storied career, yet it wasn’t enough to stop Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets from reaching their first NBA Finals.
In a scintillating playoff duel with James, Jokic turned in yet another triple-double Monday night to help the Nuggets complete their first playoff sweep in franchise history with a 113-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 at Crypto.com Arena.
Jokic — who was named the Magic Johnson Western Conference finals MVP — fended off an incredible throwback performance from James, who scored 31 points in the first half before finishing with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists in 48 minutes. James, 38, became the oldest player in NBA history to score 40 points in a playoff game.
For the Nuggets, this NBA Finals berth has been a long time coming. It has taken Denver 46 seasons to reach this point, the most seasons before a Finals appearance in NBA history. Denver had 93 playoff wins entering Monday night, the most all-time without a Finals berth.
“It’s incredible,” said Jamal Murray, who scored 25 points for the top-seeded Nuggets. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s surreal. We’re going to keep making history, that’s the thing. We’re going to keep that mindset.”
Jokic collected his NBA playoff-record eighth triple-double of the postseason with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists in 45 minutes. The Nuggets would need all of Jokic’s triple-double.
After taking a 3-0 lead in the series Saturday night, Jokic said he wasn’t scared but was “worried” about trying to close the Lakers out with James on the other side. Jokic said the Lakers superstar is capable of doing “everything.” It was as if Jokic was foretelling what was to come.
James was determined to avoid being swept for the first time in a playoff series before the NBA Finals. He has been swept twice in his career, both times in the Finals by the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, respectively.
As if that wasn’t enough motivation, James’ pregame warmup took place early — when the Western Conference finals trophy presentation rehearsal was being conducted.
Once the game started, James made 7 of his first 9 shots, including one that was supposed to be a pass that dropped in from behind the 3-point arc. He had 21 points at the end of the first quarter, tied for the most in a first quarter when facing elimination by any player over the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
He sank all four of his 3-point attempts and had 31 points by halftime, the most in a playoff half in his career.
The Lakers certainly treated this game like there was no tomorrow. They elected to bring D’Angelo Russell off the bench for the first time in the playoffs. The rest of the starting lineup each had eight points or more by halftime to help the Lakers take a 73-58 lead into intermission.
But the Lakers’ lead would be gone by the 4:39 mark of the third, when Jokic hit Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a layup with the foul, giving Jokic his 10th assist of the game and his sixth triple-double in his past eight games.
“I think we understood what was at stake,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “You don’t want to give a team like that [any chance]. That’s LeBron James over there. The way we came out in the third quarter showed me that we have a maturity about us and an understanding of how we need to play at this stage.”
The Nuggets went on a 34-14 run to take a five-point lead into the fourth quarter.
With both teams playing a tightly contested fourth quarter, Jokic picked up his fourth and fifth personal fouls on the offensive end with more than five minutes remaining. But the Nuggets kept him in the game.
After James scored to reach 40 points, Jokic answered with a fadeaway 3 at the shot-clock buzzer with 2:50 to play.
With the game tied at 111, Jokic snapped the tie with a driving layup with 51 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, James missed a fadeaway 3, but Murray could not seal the game as he missed a shot inside the paint.
With 4.0 seconds left, the Lakers called timeout. James attempted a drive but could not get a shot off as Aaron Gordon blocked his attempt to send the Nuggets to the NBA Finals for the first time.
“For that game to go down to the wire and for the ball to be in LeBron James’ hands, those seconds were an eternity,” Malone said. “When the buzzer went off, it was almost surreal for a second. Couldn’t be more proud of this group.”