LOS ANGELES — The Lakers got their first win of the season on Wednesday night in Phoenix, but they claimed their first quality win on Thursday, beating the Nuggets 121-114 in front of a Staples Center crowd that included Kobe Bryant.
A choppy but high-scoring game was kicked up a notch during the fourth quarter, as the Lakers (2-3) rode a Lance Stephenson flourish and then went small against Nikola Jokic down the stretch to close out the comeback win.
Here are three quick-hitting thoughts from Thursday night's win, which marked the Nuggets’ first defeat of the season.
Lance Stephenson’s takeover
With the Lakers down eight and lacking in life, Lance Stephenson buried a three-pointer midway through the fourth quarter, and it was immediately clear that he was headed for an extended heat check. The next trip down, he launched another three—and hit it. He then shifted into attack mode, unleashing crossovers and power dribbles to twist through the paint for a layup.
But his best play during this game-changing sequence was a pass, not a shot, as Stephenson threaded the needle to a streaking LeBron James in transition to give L.A. a two-point lead with less than four minutes remaining. Stephenson finished with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists in 24 minutes, with eight of those points coming in the decisive 71-second fourth-quarter stretch.
Lonzo Ball makes his case
If Stephenson put the Lakers in position to win, Lonzo Ball brought it home. Down the stretch, Ball made a series of crucial defensive plays: poking free a steal, successfully guarding Jokic in the post and then drawing a charge on Jokic as the Lakers extended their late-game lead.
Ball, who started for the second straight game in place of the suspended Rajon Rondo, posted 12 points, six rebounds and eight assists. He uncorked a few signature touch passes and draining two three-pointers, including one over Jokic down the stretch.
Despite a few careless turnovers and a couple of defensive lapses from the 2017 No. 2 pick, the Lakers were +10 with him on the court and minus-3 without him. His intelligence, situational awareness and two-way impact combine to make a strong case that he should continue as the starter once Rondo returns.
LeBron James notches first triple double as a Laker
James was in a deferential mood for most of the night, but still finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, marking the first triple double of his Lakers tenure and the 74th of his career. With the game on the line, Walton opted to go without a center, briefly placing James into a mismatch with Jokic. L.A. won that battle with high-energy team defense and the ability to beat Denver back down the court after collecting defensive rebounds and forcing turnovers. On the other end, James scored five points in the game’s final four minutes to help put away Denver.