Down 2-1 to Lakers, Nuggets sense a familiar bubble series pattern

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Mike Malone thinks he’s been here before.

Not just down 2-1 in an NBA bubble playoff series and having to come from behind, but the pattern of it — the Denver Nuggets getting stronger and figuring things out while the opponent falters.

“This is to me kind of similar to the last series,” Malone said after the Nuggets’ Game 3 victory. “Game 1 the Clippers blew us out. Game 2 we win. Game 3, we felt we gave that game away against the Clippers.

“[The Los Angeles Lakers] blew us out in Game 1. Game 2 we gave away at the end. We had to right that wrong and try to get a game under our belt, which we did tonight. This gives us that much more confidence going into this series letting them know that we’re here, we’re in this for the long haul. We’re going to continue to fight and do whatever we can.”

“You definitely learn more about your opponent, what to try to look for, tendencies, and all that…” Jamal Murray said about why Denver improves as the series gets longer. “Like I said, just taking care of stuff that we can control, whether it’s turnovers, communications, switches, rebounding. Areas that we should control, we got to do that if we want to win. If we’re consistent in our play, like we touched on earlier, we can win a lot of games, put a lot of pressure on other teams.”

Those tendencies and patterns, that history of success, has Denver feeling more and more like this is a series they can win. There is a confidence that is brimming from the Nuggets stars, especially Murray. He has stepped up his game, and it’s not just the three-point shooting — 34.6% in the regular season  47.7% in the playoffs — it’s his aggressive attacks and finishing at the rim. Murry, an inconsistent finisher at the rim even during this regular season, has been lights out when he gets inside in the playoffs. It stems from confidence.

“I think what I’ve seen from Jamal this year, aside from the growth defensively, which has been tremendous, I’m so proud of him in that regard, but now I know every night what I’m getting from Jamal,” Malone said. “Last year we knew what we were getting from Nikola, but what kind of game would Jamal have. That’s no longer the case. We have two superstars in Nikola and Jamal and a lot of young, talented players behind them.”

It should not be a surprise to anyone that the Nuggets played their best basketball with their backs against the wall — this team has been in four straight seven-game playoff series, winning three. They are used to the pressure. Nor should it have caught anyone off-guard that they would not go away quietly. Some in Lakers’ nation thought Anthony Davisgame-winning three to put the Lakers up 2-0 was a gut punch that would floor the Nuggets.

Malone made sure that was not the takeaway from the game.

“[Monday] when we met and we watched the film, I started off by watching the last play of the game,” Malone said. “Get the elephant in the room out of the way. Let’s talk about the play, what happened. When we’re in this situation again, let’s learn from it. Yes, we all take ownership. Let’s learn from it.

“After that, my goal was when we got done with that film, they saw so many positive clips of us doing the right things, which put us in a position to win. Now we had to do that for more than just a second half. We had to do it for four quarters.”

They did it for three, but that was enough to get the win thanks to some late heroics from Murray.

The key to the remainder of this series is defense. For both teams.

Denver is not an elite defensive team, they were middle of the pack for the regular season. What they can do throughout a series is become more disruptive. They have done it this series, quieting the Lakers’ halfcourt offense. The Lakers scored less than a point per possession — 92.8 points per 100 possessions — in their halfcourt in Game 3 (stats via Cleaning The Glass). Add to that the fact LeBron James is fading as games go on — he is dominant in the first quarter but struggling more in the fourth. Denver got a fantastic game from Jerami Grant in Game 3, they will need more of those games, but the Nuggets have a plan that works and that they can execute.

The heart of that plan is keeping the Lakers out of transition, which brings us to the other side of the equation: The Lakers intensity and physicality on defense almost won them Game 3. The Lakers forced turnovers — six in a row at one point — and turned those into transition buckets. The Lakers are as good a transition team as there is in the league and the Nuggets are terrible at defending it. When the Lakers run, they win. It’s just harder to do that when you’re taking the ball out of the basket each time down, the Lakers need stops.

Expect the Lakers to come out with intensity in Game 4, maybe helping them race out to a big lead. Maybe.  But even if that happens, the Nuggets will not be phased — they came from 16 and 19 back against the Clippers to win last round.

Denver has seen this movie before, and they liked the ending.