Nikola Jokic leads NBA champion Denver Nuggets past LeBron James and Los Angeles Lakers in the playoff opener

DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic had 32 points and 12 rebounds, and the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets cruised past LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers 114-103 in their Western Conference playoff opener on Saturday night.

Two other Nuggets players posted double-doubles – Jamal Murray (22 points, 10 assists) and Anthony Gordon (12 points, 11 rebounds) – and Michael Porter Jr. came close with 19 points and eight boards.

James had 27 points for LA and Anthony Davis had 32 points and 14 rebounds, but the Lakers lost to the Nuggets for the ninth straight time and Denver handed James just his fourth loss in 17 first-round openers.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored all 12 points after halftime, made a trio of 3-pointers in a 13-0 run that helped the Nuggets take control in the third quarter.

Porter excelled on the court, as coach Michael Malone predicted, after a difficult week for his family in which one younger brother, Coban Porter, was sentenced Friday to six years in prison for a fatal drunk driving crash and another, former Toronto Raptors guard Jontay Porter, banned from the NBA for betting on basketball and releasing confidential information to other gamblers.

“There’s so much going on off the field for Michal Porter Jr. and his family,” Malone said. “This allows him to get back to doing something that he not only loves, but does very, very well.”

The Nuggets entered these playoffs with a shot in the arm, but were confident in their chances to repeat after tying a franchise record with 57 regular season wins, four more than last year.

One sign of their looseness: Jokic, who stars in a teaser for “Despicable Me 4,” in which he seeks therapy because the Minions think he’s their boss, arrived at Ball Arena decked out in a black-and-gray striped scarf and gray pants. resembles Felonius Gru, the main character from the film franchise.

James should have shown up dressed as Vector, because he played the perfect villain for the sold-out crowd that drowned out the Lakers’ pregame introductions.

James capped a stellar first half in which he scored 19 points with a 32-foot 3-pointer, breaking a 57-point tie after the Lakers had blown a 12-point lead.

Denver’s 13-0 run in the third quarter threatened to look like a laughing matter when the Nuggets extended their lead to 15 in the fourth quarter. But James made two free throws, Davis had a three-point play and Taurean Prince had a basket to cut the Lakers’ deficit to 96-88 with 7:17 to go.

The closest they got to the Nuggets, however, was at 103-96 before Porter hit a 3 and Jokic was able to knock off a James turnover to push Denver’s lead to 12.

The Nuggets are looking to become the first team to successfully defend their NBA title since the Golden State Warriors did so six years ago.

Denver defeated the Lakers in the Western Conference finals last season, the penultimate step the Nuggets had to take before claiming their first NBA title.

The Lakers haven’t beaten the Nuggets since Dec. 16, 2022. They’ll try again Monday night in Game 2 at Ball Arena, where Denver is now 34-8 this season.

James lost in the first round for only the 18th time in 80 matches. He lost a playoff opener for the third time in his six seasons with the Lakers and fourth overall. His team also lost series openers in Round 1 in 2018 (Indiana over Cleveland), 2020 (Portland over the Lakers) and 2021 (Phoenix over the Lakers).