DENVER — There’s no championship hangover in Denver.
Moments after an emotional ring ceremony in front of a raucous home crowd of 19,000-plus fans, the Nuggets switched gears on Tuesday to the business at hand. That business was the Los Angeles Lakers.
Denver sprinted out of the gate to a 34-20 first-quarter lead then weathered multiple Lakers runs en route to a 119-107 season-opening win. It was a compelling opening gambit to what the Nuggets hope is an eight-month run to a second consecutive championship.
"I think the ceremony brought us more energy," Nikola Jokić said postgame after opening the season with a 29-point, 13-rebound, 11-assist triple-double.
Nuggets weather multiple Lakers storms after building big lead
From the tip, the Nuggets fed off that energy while opening an 18-point first-half lead. But the buzz wouldn't last. As it waned in the second quarter, the Lakers mounted a run. They cut their deficit to 63-54 at halftime then opened the second half with a 4-0 run sparked by an Austin Reaves steal off Jamal Murray, prompting a quick timeout from head coach Michael Malone.
Denver responded with an and-1 layup by Murray set up by a Jokić pass. It was the same formula the Nuggets rode to a 16-4 romp in the playoffs last season en route to a championship. When the going gets tough, look to Murray and Jokić to calm things down.
The bucket sparked a 7-0 run Nuggets run and was indicative of the rest of the night. It wasn’t the runaway Nuggets win that it threatened to be in the first quarter. But whenever the Lakers challenged, the Nuggets dug in for a response.
Malone praised a unit that returns all five starters from last year's championship run for its poise in Tuesday's win.
“I just told our players [I] was so proud of them," Malone said after the game. "Because you go through such an emotional night where you’re receiving rings and then you’re raising a banner and then you have a team coming on that wants to come out here and give you a loss on your home court.
"We got off to a great start. Our starting group looked like they didn’t miss a beat."
Nuggets fend off one last run
The Lakers would close the gap again to keep pressure on in the fourth quarter. They straddled the third and fourth quarters with a 13-0 run highlighted by a physical LeBron James drive to the rack to get within 87-84.
— NBA (@NBA) October 25, 2023
With the game in the balance, the Nuggets once again looked to their two-time MVP to set things straight.
As a play broke down with Aaron Gordon in isolation, Gordon dumped the ball off to Christian Braun on the baseline. Braun looked up to find a wide-open Jokić standing beyond the 3-point arc. Jokić caught the pass, took aim and sunk the shot to extend Denver's lead to 97-90, and the Nuggets were back in control.
— NBA (@NBA) October 25, 2023
The Lakers wouldn't threaten again. By late in the fourth quarter, the electric energy that filled Ball Arena during the ring ceremony had returned. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Nuggets fans serenaded the Lakers with a chant of, "Who's your daddy?"
The win was a sixth straight over the Lakers, a span including a four-game sweep during last season's Western Conference finals.
Jokić, Nuggets shut down Anthony Davis
Jokić didn't just do his work on offense where he shot 3-of-5 from 3-point distance. He also gave Anthony Davis fits. With Jokić largely guarding him, Davis shot 0-for-6 from the field in a scoreless second half. He finished with 17 points and eight rebounds on a 6-of-17 night shooting.
James led the way for the Lakers with 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 29 minutes. But it wasn't enough to keep the Lakers close. Murray tallied 21 points and six assists for the Nuggets while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 20 on a 2-for-3 effort from beyond the arc.
It added up to a gritty win for Denver against a fellow contender the Nuggets can build on as they figure out how to play with the league's biggest target on their collective backs. For Malone, Tuesday night was a moment to learn to play as champions.
"That’s over, man. That’s in the past," Malone said of the championship run. "To be a part of a ring ceremony, to be a part of a ceremony where you’re raising a championship banner. That is special. And you soak that in. But then you’ve go to turn the page. …
"As I said to you guys and I told our team, we have a bull's-eye on our back. We’re going to get the best from everybody."
Murray echoed the sentiments of his head coach.
"We won," Murray said of the championship. "It was amazing. It was a lot of fun over the summer. But we want to be champions again. Next summer comes, I want to have that same feeling. It’s about getting over this one and trying to get the next one."