DENVER (AP) — Unlike their crowd that drowned out the Los Angeles Lakers' pregame introductions, the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets were a little late to the playoff party Saturday night.

They turned up their offense and defense after a sputtering start, however, powering past the Lakers 114-103 behind Nikola Jokic's 32 points and 12 rebounds in the Western Conference playoff opener, their ninth consecutive triumph over the Lakers.

After watching LeBron James score 19 first-half points, capped by a pull-up 3 from 32 feet in the final second that put the Lakers up 60-57, the Nuggets limited the NBA’s career scoring leader to nine points in the second half and didn’t allow him to even take a shot in the fourth quarter until just 1:20 remained.

“We’re not going anywhere," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "This is the playoffs. No team in the playoffs, if you get down 12 early, you’re not going to just take your ball and go home. We still have plenty of fight left in us and we know that we were better than what we were playing early.

“That’s a good team over there. They came into the playoffs playing extremely well, and they showed it. LeBron was on course, I thought he’s about to have 50 points tonight, the way he was playing and shooting the ball.”

James finished with 27 points and Anthony Davis had 32.

That wasn't nearly enough to match the reigning champs' prowess.

Two other Nuggets matched Jokic's double-double — 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.

Denver handed James just his fourth loss in 17 first-round openers, but Malone said, “We've got to watch the film to see what we can do better. This is going to be a hell of a series.”

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.

“To be honest, we are desperate, too. We don't want to lose at home," Jokic said. “I think every game is going to be interesting. So, hopefully we are going to match and be even more physical than them.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham concurred with Malone's sentiment about a competitive series, saying, "Everybody's going to lose their mind over one game, and give them their credit, they held serve at home. They're a tough home team, tough to beat in general, but they're really good at home. ... (But) we did a lot of good things out there tonight.”

Denver just did more things better.

The Nuggets had 15 offensive rebounds for 18 second-chance points, 10 more than the Lakers, who grabbed just six offensive boards. And the Nuggets committed just four turnovers — just one by their starters — while the Lakers turned the ball over a dozen times, including a whopping seven by James.

“I thought we played some good ball tonight, just could have been better,” James said. “You don't have much room for error versus Denver's team, especially at their home floor. They're just a team that's been through everything. Obviously, they're the defending champions, so you gotta execute, you gotta make shots, you gotta defend. And then you can't give them extra possessions.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who scored all 12 of his points after halftime, made a trio of 3-pointers in a 13-0 run the Nuggets used to seize control in the third quarter at 89-74.

Porter excelled on the court, as coach Malone predicted he would, after a trying week for his family that saw one younger brother, Coban Porter, sentenced to six years in jail for a fatal drunken driving crash on Friday and another, former Toronto Raptors guard Jontay Porter, banned from the NBA for betting on basketball and disclosing confidential information to other bettors.

“I think I definitely tried to compartmentalize," Porter said. "Some bad and sad stuff happened to a couple of my brothers, but I got 15, 16 more brothers in here. So I knew I had to be here for them and come in here and do my job.”

The Nuggets entered these playoffs with bull's-eyes on their backs but supremely confident of 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's starring in a teaser for “Despicable Me 4” where 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, looking like Felonius Gru -- the lead character from the movie franchise.

James should have shown up dressed like Vector because he played the perfect villain, at least until halftime.

Denver swept the Lakers in last season’s Western Conference finals, the next-to-last step the Nuggets had to clear before claiming their first NBA title.

“I don't ever get into the ‘here we go again’ mindset,” James said. “One game, they protected their home court. We have another opportunity on Monday to come back and be better.”

In character: Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic shows up to game dressed like "Gru" from "Despicable Me"

DENVER (AP) — Nikola Jokic arrived in character for a first-round playoff game Saturday night.

That character was “Gru,” the protagonist from the “Despicable Me” movies.

Jokic, the two-time NBA MVP for the Denver Nuggets, wore a similar outfit and signature wrap-around striped scarf as “Gru.” It was a hit on social media, with the Nuggets posting, "going to play basketball or going to steal the moon?”

“I mean, I love the guy and I love the cartoon and why not just have a little bit of fun, too?” Jokic said after leading the Nuggets to a 114-103 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series.

The outfit he wore to the game appeared to be a tease to his appearance in a promotion for “Despicable Me 4,” where he seeks therapy because the Minions think he’s their boss.

In the trailer, Jokic sits on a couch in a suit while talking with a therapist. He explains how everyone thinks he looks like “Gru.”

“I thought I looked really good that day. I put on this beautiful suit that said, ‘I mean business,'" Jokic tells the therapist.

“Then what happened?” she wonders.

“They say I look like ‘Gru,’” Jokic responds.

"Why does that bother you?" she asks.

“It doesn’t,” Jokic insists.

"Then why bring it up? she inquires.

“Because they won’t leave me alone,” Jokic says.

Jokic then walks over to a window and pulls up a shade to reveal a handful of Minions cheering for “Gru” from outside.

“Guys, I’m not your boss," Jokic says.

Jokic is the certainly boss on the court for the Nuggets, averaging 26.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and nine assists this season. He's the favorite to win a third MVP award, according to BetMGM Sportsbook. He was the MVP of the finals last season when the Nuggets captured their first NBA title in franchise history.

Jokic, Gilgeous-Alexander and Doncic picked as the NBA's MVP finalists. Wemby up for 2 trophies, too

Nikola Jokic is one step closer to winning a third MVP award in the last four seasons. Victor Wembanyama is surely on his way to a trophy — or maybe two. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander might get a couple of his own as well.

The NBA revealed the finalists for most of the league's postseason awards Sunday — and to no surprise, Jokic, the Denver Nuggets' star, was one of the three top vote-getters for the top individual honor, the Michael Jordan trophy that gets presented to the league's Most Valuable Player.

The others: Dallas' Luka Doncic and Oklahoma City's Gilgeous-Alexander. Last season's MVP, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, was not eligible this year because of the new league rule saying players must appear in a certain number of games for award participation.

If he wins, Jokic would become the ninth player with three or more MVPs, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Jordan and Bill Russell (five), Wilt Chamberlain and LeBron James (four), and Moses Malone, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson (three).

Doncic and Gilgeous-Alexander would be first-time MVPs. Gilgeous-Alexander was a finalist for Most Improved Player last year — and this year, he's in line for the MVP prize.

This much is already assured: It’ll be the sixth consecutive year that an international player wins MVP, extending the longest such streak in NBA history. Giannis Antetokounmpo — he of Greek and Nigerian heritage — won in 2019 and 2020, Serbia’s Jokic won in 2021 and 2022 and Embiid won last season. Embiid was born in Cameroon, though became an American citizen in 2022 and has been selected for the team that will represent USA Basketball at the Paris Olympics this summer.

The awards are voted on by a panel of reporters and broadcasters who cover the league, and are based on regular season games only. Ballots were due last week before the start of the play-in tournament, and the league is expected to begin announcing winners periodically over the coming days.


Act surprised when Wembanyama wins.

The San Antonio standout from France and No. 1 pick in last year's draft — who finished the year averaging 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and an NBA-best 3.6 blocked shots per game — is the overwhelming favorite to become the third Spurs player to win rookie of the year. The others: David Robinson in 1990 and Tim Duncan in 1998.

The other finalists are Oklahoma City's Chet Holmgren — who helped the Thunder to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference — and Charlotte's Brandon Miller.

“Leading rookies in most categories and leading the league in blocks, I'm pretty proud of this,” Wembanyama said.

Wembanyama should become the first international winner of the award since Dallas' Luka Doncic in 2019 and the fifth such winner in the last 10 seasons. Andrew Wiggins (Canada) won in 2015, Karl-Anthony Towns (Dominican Republic) won in 2016, Ben Simmons (Australia) win in 2018 and Doncic followed the next season.


Miami's Bam Adebayo, Utah's Rudy Gobert and Wembanyama were the three finalists — meaning the Spurs rookie is now assured of being top-three in two different sets of voting.

None of last season's finalists made the top three this year. Memphis' Jaren Jackson Jr. won the award last season, with Milwaukee's Brook Lopez and Cleveland's Evan Mobley the other finalists in 2023.


Philadelphia's Tyrese Maxey, Chicago's Coby White and Houston's Alperen Sengun are this year's finalists.

Utah's Lauri Markkanen won last year, with Gilgeous-Alexander and New York's Jalen Brunson the other finalists.


Milwaukee's Bobby Portis is a finalist again, along with Sacramento's Malik Monk and Minnesota's Naz Reid.

Malcolm Brogdon, then of Boston, won the award last year, with Portis and New York's Immanuel Quickley the other finalists.


Golden State's Stephen Curry. Chicago's DeMar DeRozan and Oklahoma City's Gilgeous-Alexander are the finalists for the clutch player of the year.

DeRozan was a finalist last year as well, when Sacramento's De'Aaron Fox won.


Oklahoma City's Mark Daigneault, Minnesota's Chris Finch and Orlando's Jamahl Mosley were the top three vote-getters.

Daigneault already won the coach of the year award presented by the National Basketball Coaches Association — not the official NBA award, but one that since it was introduced in 2017 often mirrors the eventual results of league voting. Over its first seven seasons, one of the NBCA selections (there have been co-winners twice) wound up as the NBA winner five times.

Sacramento's Mike Brown was last year's unanimous winner, with Daigneault and Boston’s Joe Mazzulla the other finalists in 2023.

A tale of two centers: Jokic is trying to stay on top and Embiid is trying to stay on the court

NEW YORK (AP) — Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are the NBA's main men in the middle, the two centers combining for the last three MVP awards in the regular season with perhaps another coming soon.

It's in the postseason where their paths are so different.

Jokic cemented his place among the game's greats by leading the Denver Nuggets to last year's NBA title, and he appears intent on staying on top.

Embiid is just trying to stay on the court.

He's rarely been healthy enough to mount a real run at a championship and he's already at less than full strength just a game into this postseason.

Jokic will try to lead the Nuggets to a 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, while the Philadelphia 76ers hope Embiid can help them tie up their series against the New York Knicks.

The Cleveland Cavaliers host the Orlando Magic in the other game Monday after winning the series opener.

Jokic had 32 points and 12 rebounds Saturday in Denver's 114-103 victory. He has scored 20 or more points in 20 consecutive playoff games.

“We see it all the time, man,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Nikola is a great player and the bigger the stage, the brighter the lights, he just continues to shine.”

Embiid seemed on his way to a dominant night against the Knicks before appearing to reinjure his surgically repaired left knee after throwing the ball off the backboard to himself and slamming it down late in the first half. Last season's MVP and scoring champion returned and finished with 29 points but appeared limited, going 2 for 11 after halftime and missing all five shots in the fourth quarter.

He has missed at least one game in each of the last three postseasons. But he returned after sitting out two months following Feb. 6 surgery to help the 76ers reach the playoffs, and his teammates weren't surprised he kept playing in pain in Game 1.

“He’s always a fighter, he’s always going to try to go out there and give his all for his team,” All-Star Tyrese Maxey said. “So if he’s able to go, if he thinks he can go, then he for sure will be out there.”

Donovan Mitchell battled his own knee problems in the second half of the season, but looked sharp with 30 points as Cleveland beat Orlando 97-83 on Saturday in a strong response after getting manhandled by the Knicks last year.

“That’s how the series is going to be,” said Mitchell, who was so anxious for Game 1 that he only got a few hours' sleep. “How do you respond? That’s been my message all year. We’re going to get beat up. We’re going to turn the ball over. We’re going to have bad possessions.

“We’re not going to make shots. Stuff like that’s going to happen. That was a great response.”


Cleveland leads 1-0. Game 2, 7 p.m. EDT, NBA TV/fubo

— NEED TO KNOW: The Cavs passed the first test. Bigger ones are coming. Lifted by a raucous crowd, Cleveland stood its ground when Orlando got feisty. Magic forward Franz Wagner’s rough play underneath led to some jawing, shoving and a pair of technical fouls. Expect the Magic to stay physical.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: Orlando’s Paolo Banchero. The All-Star forward scored 24 points in his playoff debut, but it took him a while to get going. Banchero was way too careless with the ball, committing nine of Orlando’s 12 turnovers. The Cavs did a nice job running an extra defender at Banchero, forcing him into uncomfortable situations.

— INJURY WATCH: A week of rest seemed to do wonders for Mitchell, who was darting around with his usual burst and lift. It will be interesting to see how he looks with just one recovery day.

— PRESSURE IS ON: Magic guard Jalen Suggs. He’s got to try and contain Mitchell and provide something on offense following a 4-of-16 shooting performance that included 1 of 7 on 3s. At least he made a shot, Orlando’s other guards Garry Harris, Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony were a combined 0 for 17.


New York leads 1-0. Game 2, 7:30 p.m. EDT, TNT

— NEED TO KNOW: The 76ers forced All-Star Jalen Brunson into 8-for-26 shooting in Game 1 but other Knicks made them pay. Deuce McBride made five 3-pointers, Josh Hart four and Bojan Bogdanovic three.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: The rebound battle. The Knicks go after offensive boards as hard as anybody, and they grabbed 23 in Game 1 en route to a 55-33 advantage overall and a 26-8 edge in second-chance points.

— INJURY WATCH: Embiid is again listed as questionable for Game 2. The Sixers cleared him to start in Game 1 after he went through his pregame workout and that may be the same plan Monday.

— PRESSURE IS ON: Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. Embiid needs help on the boards if he's limited, and the starting forwards' combined 12 rebounds were one fewer than Hart had himself.


Nuggets lead 1-0. Game 2, 10 p.m. EDT, TNT

— NEED TO KNOW: The Nuggets got off to a slow start to begin defense of the franchise’s first NBA championship, but they dominated the Lakers most of the night in their playoff opener, outscoring them by 10 points both on second chances and in the paint. They also outscored LA 21-14 on fast breaks. Although LeBron James (27) and Anthony Davis (32) combined for 59 points, James had a quiet second half and he committed seven of the Lakers’ 12 turnovers while the Nuggets only had four, including just one by their starters.

— KEEP AN EYE ON: Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, who missed 14 of 20 shots but seemed unbothered by that 30% shooting clip, saying he was thrilled to get that many shots off and figures a bigger percentage of them will fall in Game 2.

— INJURY WATCH: Lakers coach Darvin Ham said Sunday it's unclear when Christian Wood (knee) and Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) will be available to bolster a bench that saw just one player (Taurean Prince) score in Game 1. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray, who missed seven games down the stretch with a balky knee, logged 39 minutes without any trouble in Game 1.

— PRESSURE IS ON: Los Angeles, which hasn’t beaten the Nuggets in almost 500 days. The Lakers have lost nine in a row to the Nuggets even though they’ve gotten to the line more than Denver did in all nine games, taking 204 free throw attempts during that streak to the Nuggets’ 130. On Saturday night, the Lakers were 17 of 19 from the stripe and Denver was just 5 of 6. Asked what he'd do to rectify the disparity, Malone cracked, “Why should we? We keep winning.” Seriously, though, Malone said it's not like his team just settles for jump shots. “But we went into this series knowing that they had a plus-500 differential this year.”