Nikola Jokic scored 38 points Sunday as the Denver Nuggets sent the Los Angeles Lakers spinning to a sixth straight defeat and closer to elimination from NBA postseason contention.
With LeBron James looking on from the sidelines, a patched-up Lakers team was unable to contain Jokic down the stretch as the Nuggets powered to a 129-118 win at the Lakers' Crypto.com Arena.
The defeat leaves the Lakers needing a miracle to overtake the San Antonio Spurs for a place in the postseason play-in tournament.
The Lakers are 11th in the Western Conference, with a 31-47 record. San Antonio occupy 10th place -- and are on track for a spot in the play-in -- with a 32-45 record.
With just four games remaining, the Lakers have precious little margin for error -- and dauntingly face a trip to the league-leading Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.
Defeat in Arizona could see them eliminated from playoff contention depending on results elsewhere.
If the Lakers fail to reach the postseason, it would mark only the fourth time since LeBron James entered the league in 2003 that he has not gone to the playoffs.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel could not hide his dejection after Sunday's damaging defeat.
"What's it like? It sucks," Vogel responded to a reporter.
"It sucks telling these guys every game 'Proud of you, good effort -– we lost.' It's not fun but it could be worse, if things were untraveling. But our team has stayed together -– they've put in fight, their attitude has been wonderful," Vogel said.
"It's just disappointing to come in and keep saying we fell short."
"It sucks we can't get over the damn hump and put a 'W' on the board when we need it," he added. "But our guys' spirit is really pure. They're fighting a good fight but we just keep falling short."
- Doncic wins Giannis duel -
Vogel admitted the Lakers had been unable to contain Jokic during a decisive fourth quarter. Jokic finished with 38 points, 18 rebounds and six assists.
Will Barton added 25 points while Aaron Gordon had 24.
"We didn't have enough answers for him down the stretch," Vogel said of Jokic.
Anthony Davis, clearly struggling for full fitness, led the Lakers with 28 points, while Russell Westbrook finished with 27.
Elsewhere Sunday, Luka Doncic won his duel with Giannis Antetokounmpo as the Dallas Mavericks downed the Milwaukee Bucks.
Mavs star Doncic finished with 32 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds as the Mavs highlighted their postseason credentials with a 118-112 road win over the NBA champions.
Doncic spearheaded a balanced offensive performance by Dallas, who finished with six players in double figures.
Doncic was given scoring support from Dwight Powell with 22 points and Reggie Bullock with 16 points.
Point guard Jalen Brunson added 15 points while Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie chipped in with 11 apiece for Dallas, who improved to 49-30 to remain fourth in the Western Conference standings.
The Bucks fell to 48-30 after a defeat which followed their 153-119 mauling Friday by the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Bucks had led by 10 points early in the second quarter but were gradually reeled in by Miami, who pulled clear in the fourth after an 11-point burst from Doncic.
Antetokounmpo led Bucks scorers with 28 points, with Jrue Holiday adding 20.
In other NBA action Sunday, the Boston Celtics bullied the Washington Wizards en route to a 144-102 thrashing at the TD Garden.
Jaylen Brown drained three of four three-point attempts to lead the Celtics scoring with 32 points while Jayson Tatum added 22 for Boston, who remain in second place in the Eastern Conference.