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James’ triple-double leads Lakers past Nuggets

By Dan Woike
Los Angeles Times/TNS

LOS ANGELES - There’s the kid picked in the middle of the second round with three less letters in his name than years on this planet, the wild-haired big man who couldn’t get off the bench in his first NBA stop and the gunner transforming himself into a whatever-it-takes role player.

Oh, and the best player on the planet.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel stumbled upon that group during the team’s extended absence from Los Angeles, sort of accidentally pairing Talen Horton-Tucker, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and LeBron James together late in their last road trip.

And, to the surprise of no one who has watched the Lakers over the last week, they were on the court for the moments that mattered most, the stretches that turned disappointment into domination.

After trailing the Nuggets by a dozen at the half, the Lakers’ biggest star and his reserve running mates flipped the game, pushing the Lakers to a convincing 114-93 win Thursday at Staples Center.

While Alex Caruso had been a key part of that lineup during road wins in Atlanta and Boston, Vogel used Anthony Davis with the other four late in the third quarter as the Lakers pulled away, a 15-0 run over the final four minutes of the quarter, turning things around.

Offensively, it was Horton-Tucker attacking the rim repeatedly, using his rangy limbs to create perfect angles for feathery finishes. It was Kuzma and Harrell patiently waiting for their spots and making the most of their opportunities from them.

And it was James doing what he does so well - everything - scoring 27 to go with 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

But what made everyone happiest Thursday was the Lakers’ defense, the grips tightening on Denver’s talented group to hold the Nuggets to only 35 points in the final two quarters, pushing the Nuggets’ field-goal percentage below 40% as they swarmed to contest every look Denver seemed to get.

In the first half, the Nuggets made shots, and when they missed, they beat the Lakers to the glass - the type of thing they’ve been doing all year. Only Utah grabs a higher percentage of misses than Denver.

They turned a plus-13 advantage on the boards into a 12-point lead at halftime, the second quarter perfectly ending with Denver star center Nikola Jokic tipping in his own miss for the Nuggets’ 12th and 13th second-chance points.

At halftime, Vogel “got after us” a little bit, Davis said, pushing his Lakers to find energy and pace, to improve their body language and to undo the damage done in the game’s first 24 minutes.

“I was very unhappy with how we played,” Vogel said, correcting the record by saying he got after the Lakers “a lot a bit.”

They listened.

It started with Dennis Schroder, who played with the proper intensity all game, sending the Lakers into the locker room with some fire. Like a shortstop diving to stop a screaming line drive, the Lakers point guard went parallel to the court to slap the ball into the backcourt to force a 24-second violation, a play that forced Vogel to unleash a bit of a primal scream from underneath his facial covering.

And while he was diving for loose balls, he was also the Lakers’ second-best scoring threat, finishing the game with 21 points on only nine shot attempts.

“He was doing everything for us,” Davis said.

Davis, normally the Laker called upon to carry the offense alongside James, was mostly neutralized, and in his void, Horton-Tucker stepped in, tying his career-high with 17 points, 12 coming in the second half on six-of-seven shooting.

“He’s not afraid of anyone,” Davis said of the 20-year-old wing. “Heart of a lion.”

And he was at the front of the line to devour the Nuggets, the team the Lakers beat in five games in the Western Conference finals a season ago. Denver shot 34.1% from the field in the half, with Jokic making just three of nine.

“It was a heck of a second half for us,” Vogel said.