LeBron James passed Michael Jordan for fourth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list, but it was all downhill after that.
Will Barton scored 23 points and the Denver Nuggets dominated the shorthanded Lakers, 115-99, on Wednesday night at Staples Center.
Following three straight losses to the Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, and L.A. Clippers, the Lakers appear to have accepted their fate on missing out on the postseason.
The Lakers were without starters Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram for the game against the Nuggets, with James seemingly on a slight minutes restriction.
James played 31 minutes (he averages 36) in the lopsided loss, scoring 31 points in the defeat.
"At the end of the day we're still struggling and I hate that for our franchise, for our fans, and for myself," James said after the loss.
The only excitement and climatic moment in the game was when James finally surpassed Jordan with 5:38 remaining in the second quarter. After tying "His Airness," on a fadeaway jumper seconds before, James drove the lane for a left-handed layup that moved him into rarefied air.
"Of all the things in my career, this ranks right up there with the top," said James of his accomplishment. "I wanted to be like MJ. I didn't know how it was going to happen. A couple teammates asked me how would I like it to be, and I said: 'either a fadeaway in the post or an off two-feet, lean-in, tongue out, dunk off the break."
Denver led wire-to-wire, extending the lead to 23 points in the third quarter, but behind rarely used players Mo Wagner, Alex Caruso, and Johnathan Williams, the Lakers roared back in the fourth quarter.
"LeBron and the G-League Group," as we'll affectionately call the unit that made the comeback, cut the lead to two, 87-85, midway through the fourth quarter.
"I loved it," said Lakers' head coach Luke Walton about the effort from that unit. "We're looking for guys that are going to play the way we need to play. There's a certain way to play this game. The respect you show for the game. We found it in the second half with a group consisting of guys: J3 [Johnathan Williams], AC [Alex Caruso], Moe [Moritz Wagner], and Josh Hart."
However, Los Angeles would not get any closer as James was pulled from the game with five minutes remaining and the Nuggets leading by nine.
All five starters scored in double figures for Denver with Barton leading the way with 23.
"I wanted to lead by example tonight and come out and just play with a lot of energy," said Barton. "You saw I was trying to be everywhere, whether it was rebounding, getting a couple assists, trying to defend, and tonight my shots went in."
Gary Harris scored 19, Paul Millsap had 16, Jamal Murrary added 19, and Nikola Jokic had 12 points, 17 rebounds, and eight assists.
"It's always nice to win the game," said Jokic who helped snap Denver's three-game losing streak. "We were playing to win the game, of course. We relaxed again, so that's not a good thing. We had a 23-point lead and the [Lakers] came back. I think we need to close the games and not have that kind of interesting finish."
Los Angeles was led by James who had a game-high 31. JaVale McGee had 16 points, and Alex Caruso chipped in a career-high 15 off the bench.
"All of us are young and have relentless energy," Caruso said of the unit that consisted of many of his South Bay Lakers teammates. "We fly around, we hit people, we're out there playing as hard as we can. Playing with guys like Rondo and LeBron, it's really easy. Just set screens and shoot when you're open."
The Lakers shot 52 percent from the free throw line and 22 percent from beyond the arc.
Notes and Next
Lonzo Ball (left ankle sprain),Kyle Kuzma (ankle sprain), Tyson Chandler (neck stiffness), and Brandon Ingram (shoulder) all missed the game due to injuries.
The Lakers will host the Boston Celtics on Saturday at 5:30PM PT.