LOS ANGELES — The Lakers hadn’t lost at home all postseason. They hadn’t lost three in a row since their roster was revamped at the All-Star break. Los Angeles was coming home desperate for a win to keep an impressive playoff run alive.
The Nuggets were the better team Saturday night.
The Nuggets are the better team. Flat out.
Denver’s defense was impressive, holding the Lakers — with LeBron James and Anthony Davis — to a 111.3 offensive rating (which would have been bottom five in the league for the season). Denver has shooters everywhere. They have continuity. They have trust. They execute.
With all that, the Nuggets are up 3-0 in the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers after a 119-108 Game 3 win. The Nuggets can close the series out Monday night at Crypto.com Arena.
Here are three takeaways from Game 3.
1) The Nuggets showed the poise of a champion
On the road, in a game that the home-team Lakers had to win to keep their season and championship dreams alive, it was the Nuggets who came out playing with a sense of desperation.
That’s what champions do.
Maybe it was mostly Jamal Murray playing with that desperation early — he had a ridiculous first half (more on that in item No. 2) — but the Lakers couldn’t match it.
However, the real moment of championship poise — the time it became clear who was going to win this series — came in the third quarter. After a reviewed call, Nikola Jokić went to the bench with his fourth foul. There was 7:24 in the third and the Lakers, down five at that time, had had the chance to take control of the game (especially with Murray having cooled off, in part thanks to great defense from Dennis Schroder).
Instead, the Lakers were only +3 the rest of the quarter and the Nuggets still led by two heading into the fourth. While much of the fourth remained close, it was that stretch in the third where it became clear this was going to be the Nuggets’ series.
“I did see poise tonight,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Fourth foul and Nicola going out, there wasn’t a panic. It was, ‘Okay, he’s out. That means somebody else has to step up.’ And I think that’s something our team has done time and time again.”
They have, this is the No. 1 seed in the West for a reason. However, we tend to do something in all sports where we’re not convinced a player or team can perform at the highest level until they do it. We don’t think a quarterback is good enough to win the Super Bowl until they do (then we act like we knew they could). The Nuggets went through that this season. They were the best team in the West, were the No. 1 seed from December on, yet there was hesitation because we hadn’t seen them do it.
No more. This Nuggets team may or may not win the NBA Finals, but they are a championship-caliber team without question. No more hesitation.
2) Jamal Murray was cooking early, Jokić late
The Nuggets stars stepped up on the biggest stage of the season.
Jamal Murray came out on fire. At the end of the first quarter, the score was Lakers 20, Jamal Murray 17, with Murray shooting 8-of-10. (Add in the other Nuggets players and they were up a dozen.) Murray had 30 in the first half and 37 for the game.
Jamal Murray explodes for 30 points in the 1st half, finishing with 37 for the 2nd straight game!
The @nuggets now hold a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals. pic.twitter.com/eLmpj3keXq
— NBA (@NBA) May 21, 2023
From the fourth quarter of Game 2 through the first half of Game 3, Murray was hitting the kind of difficult, contested shots against the Lakers it felt like even Stephen Curry couldn’t hit last round. That’s because there is one key difference — the Lakers could double Steph with impunity because Jordan Poole and Klay Thompson didn’t make them pay. The Nuggets have shooters everywhere — remove Murray from the equation on Game 3 and Denver was still 12-of-30 from 3 (40%) on the night.
Murray was quiet in the third. Jokić was on the bench for much of it, but he saw something. When he and Murray were back on the court together in the fourth, the two started playing a two-man game that sealed the win.
“At the end of the game, [Jokić] and Jamal playing a two-man game — and I have to give credit where credit is due, that was Nikola’s call,” Malone said. “He said on the bench, ‘Let’s go to this play. Let me and Jamal play, whole side of the floor, and we’ll make the right reads.’ And we milked that down the stretch. So Coach Jokic did a great job tonight.”
Murray agreed that Jokić called for the sets “in his best English.”
Jokić scored 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting in the fourth, and that was the ballgame.
3) Lakers made their adjustments (which worked). Nuggets had counters.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham said pregame that D'Angelo Russell was a key part of the team’s attack, even though to most everyone else he has looked unplayable this series (after Game 3, the Lakers are -54 this series in his minutes, in a series where they are just -22 overall). There have been reports the Lakers were concerned about how Russell would respond to being benched, that they would “lose him.”
Russell started Game 3 (as did Jared Vanderbilt, Ham stuck with his Game 2 starting five). Finally, at the end of the second quarter, Ham leaned into the non-Russell lineup: Schroder, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers went on a 14-4 run to close out the half with that group and Los Angeles only trailed by three at the break (58-55).
It was a lineup frustrating Jokić because they could bring a double off Aaron Gordon and he was not spacing the floor or making them pay. It was maybe the best team defense anyone has played on Jokić all season.
Russell was back out on the court to start the second half (and played 11 minutes after the break), but with seven minutes left in the game Ham went back to his best lineup looking to save their season.
Malone had a counter ready — Gordon was out, Jeff Green was in. Green is a respectable 3-point shooter that the Lakers can’t leave alone in the corner. The Nuggets started running the Murray/Jokic two-man game with shooters everywhere else on the court.
“So that lineup was Bruce [Brown], Jamal, Joker, Mike [Michael Porter Jr.], and Jeff [Green]. Those are all interchangeable pieces,” Gordon explained. “You had Joker playing the one, you had Jamal setting the screen. You have Bruce, you have another guard out there. So everybody is interchangeable. And I think that’s a little too much for them.”
It was too much for the Lakers defense. They had no answer.
And now the Lakers don’t have much of their season left.