Dedicate this game to Dwight Howard.
After playing just 15 total minutes in the Western Conference Semi Finals against the Houston Rockets, Howard was hungry to take the floor for the Conference Finals matchup with the Denver Nuggets.
Needless to say, he made the most of his minutes on the court in Game 1.
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Howard has his best game inside the NBA Bubble scoring 13 points with two steals and two blocks, and the Los Angeles Lakers blew out the Denver Nuggets, 126-114, in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Friday night.
"Coach [Frank Vogel] had already told us bigs that it was going to be tough to get minutes because of how Houston plays," said Howard who played just four minutes in the last four games of that series, all Lakers victories. "Instead of getting upset or pouting, I decided to get ready for this series against whoever we play next and it just happened to be Denver. I gave my teammates everything I got and I pushed the limit tonight."
Howard set the tone with his defense in the first half, and the former three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year was rewarded for his effort by starting in the second half after a halftime adjustment by head coach Frank Vogel.
"I just liked his energy," said Vogel of his decision. "Dwight has a great physical presence out there and this is going to be a physical series. We didn't have a plan to do that going into tonight, but I really liked the way he played in the first half and felt like he could make an impact by starting the second half."
Howard made life difficult on Nuggets' center Nikola Jokic all night, allowing Anthony Davis to slide back into his preferred position at the four. Davis dominated his matchup regardless of his position, scoring a game-high 37 points to go with 10 rebounds.
"I've been telling him he last two weeks that he's going to be the x-factor in this series," said Lakers' point guard Rajon Rondo about Howard. "In a championship run you need all 15 guys, and that's what we displayed tonight."
LeBron James had 15 points and 12 assists. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope chipped in 18 points, and Kule Kuzma had 11 off the bench.
Jokic tallied 21 points and six rebounds, but spent most of the game in foul trouble. Jamal Murray finished with 21 points.
"I think I started the game good and then I had three fouls," said Jokic. "Then I started the third quarter good and aggressive, and then I got more fouls. We need to do collectively a better job."
Denver scored the first basket of the game for a 2-0 lead, and led 38-36 after the first quarter. However, it was all Lakers after that as they pulled away in the second quarter, leading by as many as 17 points before the break.
"We knew the first quarter definitely wasn't Laker basketball, Laker defense," said James about the game overall. " We just had some break downs. We had some break downs, took a quarter for us to kind of figure it out. Not saying that we fully figured them out because it's too early in the series tos ay that but started to get a better feel and rhythm defensively and started to get some stops in the second quarter and build that lead up going into halftime."
Part of the reason why the Lakers were able to build such a big lead was because they went to the free throw line a season-high 24 times in the quarter. Denver believed some of those calls were questionable as they refs blew the whistle on them 16 times in the period.
"Respect is earned in every aspect. I always try to be as respectful as I can when I talk to the referees. The call is not always going to go your way and you can't complain about it," said Murray about the 16 personal fouls called on Denver in the second quarter. "You just have to play through it. I might miss a shot or make a bad pass, and they might make a bad call. It's going to happen. Just don't overreact and play through it. I'm not going to sit here and blame it on the refs."
James gave the Lakers some cause for concern in the second quarter when he appeared to roll his left ankle after landing on Nuggets' forward Jerami Grant's foot. Nevertheless, James powered through it, wincing at times, but showing no ill effects of the injury in the second half.
Fatigue from back-to-back seven-game series appeared to set in for the Nuggets during numerous occasions in the second half. The Lakers went on an 11-2 run midway with through the fourth quarter to extend the lead to over 20 points for the first time. Los Angeles closed the quarter on a run as well, going up by 24 points at the end of the third quarter.
"No lead is safe with this team, in the game or in the series," said Davis about the Lakers keeping their foot on the proverbial gas pedal in the second half. " They have proven that they are a second half team where they come out and just destroy teams in the second half, and prove that even if they are down a series, they are a team that's going to be resilient and keep fighting no matter what the score is, what the situation is."
The Nuggets waived the white flag in the final period, benching Jokic and Murray with 6:15 remaining in the game.
"We didn't want to come out tonight and give them any confidence or hope," said Howard on the broadcast after the game. "We wanted to come out tonight and smash them from the beginning of the game until the end."
The Lakers had 33 assists, the most in a playoff game since April 21, 2009 against the Utah Jazz. Defensively, the Lakers had more steals (9-3), and more blocks (6-2) than Denver in the game. The Nuggets had 15 turnovers and shot just 34 percent (9-for-26) from the three-point line.
"I've been saying it for three days now that the keys to beating this team are getting back in transition, protecting the paint, and giving them one shot," said Nuggets' head coach Mike Malone. "Obviously we did a poor job of that tonight."
The Lakers improved to 35-0 on the season when they shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is set for Sunday afternoon at 4:30PM PT at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.