The depth and culture the Los Angeles Lakers spent the last several months establishing have guided them to the Western Conference Finals. To advance past the Denver Nuggets, — “Level 3”, as the Lakers call it — they're going to need LeBron James and Anthony Davis to be at their absolute best.

The Lakers lost Game 2, 108-103, for all sorts of reasons. Their transition defense remains shockingly putrid. Jamal Murray went scorched-earth in the fourth quarter, when he piled on 23 of his 37 points — a chunk of which came via contested looks (the Lakers' half-court defense was excellent) — as Denver went on a 20-5 run. Nikola Jokic didn't even play well and put up 23 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. Fatigue was a factor. D'Angelo Russell was detrimental, once again. The Lakers took some unfortunate shots. A few calls didn't go their way.

“Overall, the energy was there, the effort was there, the urgency was there,” said Darvin Ham. “We just caught a bad stretch.”

Above all else, though, the superstars underwhelmed. The Lakers have been able to withstand defense-first performances from Davis and pick-and-choose nights from LeBron thanks to the emergence of their role players — namely, Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, who both eclipsed 20 points in Game 2. That's all well and good, and the Lakers kept things close into the final minute of both games. They led by 10 in the second half. But this series is going back to Los Angeles 1-1 if LeBron and Davis played to their usual standard and grabbed the reins in crunchtime.

Game 1 wasn't on them. Davis (40 points, 10 rebounds) essentially played Jokic (34/21/14) to a standstill, or at least close enough. LeBron had 26 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists, though he missed all four of his threes — including a befuddling brick in the final minute. Ultimately, Los Angeles lost because their effort was admittedly subpar until the third quarter and the three-guard starting lineup backfired.

Game 2 does fall on LeBron and AD — specifically, their lackluster offensive output (they battled on D). The Lakers aren't going to topple a loaded, rolling Nuggets squad that never loses at home when their two all-time greats combine to score 20 fewer points than Jokic and Murray. LeBron missed several layups — including a bunny with 26.4 seconds left — twisted his left ankle, and looked gassed throughout the night in high altitude (as did everybody). He posted 22 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists, but shot 9-for-19 from the field and missed all six of his 3s. Bruce Brown easily stole the ball from him on the Lakers' final possession. He blundered his signature dunk, a mistake he called “horrible.”

“He can shoot all he wants,” said Reaves. “It's LeBron James. I don't think anybody bats an eye when he shoots a shot or questions his shot. We want him taking whatever he feels comfortable with,”

Davis had 14 rebounds and four blocks but shot 4-for-15 and committed four turnovers. He missed two 3s in the final 3:15 — open shots, but ones the Nuggets are happy to give him. The Lakers are 2-6 in the 2023 NBA Playoffs when AD and LeBron combine to score 40 points or fewer, per ESPN.

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Beyond the box score, neither future Hall of Famer made a definable imprint on the game. LeBron neither controlled the action nor warped the floor to his liking. He took three eyebrow-raising, pull-up 3s in the fourth quarter rather than running sets — perhaps to conserve energy, as the Lakers switched him onto Jokic.

Davis wasn't absentee, but it wasn't one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it performances when he hunts free throws and imposes his will. As the game wore on, the Lakers stopped playing downhill.

“I got the same looks,” said AD. “Lot of 'em were just short tonight. I'll be better. … I gotta be better, more efficient to help the team win.”

The Nuggets have a lot to do with all of this. They're huge, athletic, potent, and motivated. Getting to the NBA Finals is hard, especially as a No. 7 seed (it's never happened).

The Lakers' supporting cast is improved but can only carry so many scenes. The onus on the stars becomes heavier with each successive round as the rotation whittles down. If the Lakers are going to avoid falling into a 3-0 hole, LeBron and AD simply have to shine brighter. The question is, with both players consumed by the Joker and LeBron limited by a torn foot tendon, can they muster the juice?