When the first quarter ended and the Los Angeles Lakers had a 33-25 lead over the Denver Nuggets, it seemed as if Los Angeles finally had enough to fend off the defending NBA Champions. In the previous games played, it appeared as if the Lakers didn't have an answer for Nikola Jokić and a Denver offensive attack that seemed tailormade to play upon the Laker's most glaring weaknesses on defense.

An offseason that was mostly dedicated to running back last year's rosters with a few new additions didn't elicit a lot of hope from Lakers faithful in their quest to eventually find a way to defeat a Nuggets team that always seems as if their contention for a title is inevitable.

Through the first 12 minutes of the game, the Lakers seemed determined to set the tide for the series. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both in rare form with James finishing the period with 12 points, five assists, and three rebounds. It appeared as if the tide would change, and the Lakers were ready to put their best foot forward to topple their foe.

Then the rest of the game happened, and the Lakers were outscored 89-70. From the second quarter onwards, the game felt like a replay of May 2023, an additional game in last year's Western Conference Finals.

No matter what the Lakers tried to do, the Nuggets had an answer. In the third quarter, they eventually took the lead and never looked back. The Lakers even attempted to cut the lead down to six midway through the fourth quarter, but it still felt as if the Nuggets' victory was inevitable.

There are a multitude of reasons why the Lakers lost. The Nuggets outrebounded them 49-40, holding a 15-6 advantage on offensive rebounds and converting it into 18 second-chance points. The bench seemingly didn't show up to the game as all 11 bench points came from Tauren Prince. But the main reasons the Lakers lost this game are Darvin Ham and D'Angelo Russell.

D'Angelo Russell continues his playoff struggles vs. the Nuggets

On a night where the Lakers could've benefitted from D'Angelo Russell stepping up and helping James and Davis will the team to a victory, he didn't show up. Russell seemed flat the whole night, finishing the game with 13 points on 6-of-20 shooting and only one 3-pointer in nine attempts in 41 minutes on the court.

Compare that to his play-in tournament performance where he scored 21 points and dished out six assists while hitting five 3-pointers in 37 minutes of play.

Where was the D'Angelo Russell from New Orleans on Tuesday night? The Lakers really needed the Russell from April 16, especially when the Nuggets dominated the game in the third quarter, extending their lead to 15 points in the fourth.

However, there seems to be a noticeable issue with Russell's performance against Denver in the playoffs. According to StatMuse, he has averaged 7.6 points, 3.4 assists, and only three successful 3-pointers out of 24 attempts in the five playoff games against the Nuggets.

If D'Angelo Russell doesn't step up as the Lakers' third option in this series, they risk losing and potentially facing a sweep. The Nuggets pose a significant challenge for James and Davis without substantial support from the rest of the team. Russell must reignite the spark he showed in the Play-In game to give Los Angeles a fighting chance against Denver.

Darvin Ham must step up his coaching prowess

Darvin Ham is definitely not popular among Lakers fans. He routinely receives criticism for his questionable lineups, poor timeout management and refusal to adapt to the opponent's game plan. All his coaching flaws were evident in Game 1 and on display for millions to see.

After leading the Nuggets 33-25 entering the second quarter, Ham put out a lineup that featured Gabe Vincent, D'Angelo Russell, Taurean Prince, Anthony Davis, and Jaxon Hayes.

The lineup combination was odd and did nothing to pad their eight-point lead in the opening part of the quarter. Denver was uncharacteristically out of rhythm to start the period, but the Lakers, due to Ham's lineup mismanagement, weren't able to capitalize.

Rui Hachimura emerged as a surprisingly effective Jokić defender in last year's Western Conference Finals in the few moments he took the two-time MVP on. But in Game 1, that matchup simply didn't work. Hachimura simply was overmatched by Jokic and ultimately became a net-negative in the game as he couldn't find his offense.

Davis was more effective in the moments that he guarded Jokić, but Ham appeared to not be committed to adjusting to having Davis take the assignment of slowing down Jokic. The Nuggets star big man finished with 32 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.

If Ham made the adjustment of allowing Davis to guard Jokic in single coverage as the Nuggets made their run in the third quarter to take the lead, the flow of the game might've changed.

As usual, Darvin Ham appears reluctant to make subtle on-the-fly adjustments, allowing the opposing team's coaching staff to exploit the stagnant defensive strategy, thus tipping the momentum in their favor.

Arguably the most egregious error of the game was Ham's decision to keep LeBron James on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter. Although it was brief, the Lakers weren't able to manufacture any offense while he was sitting on the bench, as the Nuggets outscored the Lakers 7-3 in the few minutes James was off the floor.

While James displayed a more subdued approach in the second half by focusing on involving his teammates, it seems crucial during playoffs to ensure your top two players are playing together. The deficit was only 89-78, a manageable deficit to overcome given they were able to cut Denver's lead down to six minutes later.

But Ham seemed largely uninterested in making the right lineup call and putting his star player in the game at the moment he's needed the most. It's a blessing that Ham called the timeout after the lead grew to 15.

Darvin Ham needs to elevate his coaching strategy to create a game plan that can push the Lakers to achieve what seems unattainable: defeating the Nuggets, a team they haven't overcome in regular or postseason play since Dec. 16, 2022. If both he and Russell don't step up in game two, this series might mirror the outcome of the Western Conference Finals from last season.