The Lakers are in trouble as the superior Nuggets lead 3-0 in the West Finals
LOS ANGELES — Two-time Denver Nuggets MVP Nikola Jokic struggled on offense for three quarters and suffered his fourth foul with 7:24 left in the third quarter. The Nuggets maintained a slim lead, and when Jokic looked to return early in the fourth quarter, he turned to Denver coach Michael Malone with an offensive proposal.
“At the end of the game, he and Jamal (Murray) played a two-man game. I must give credit where credit is due: that was Nikola’s decision,” Malone said. “He said on the bench, ‘Let’s go.’ to this piece. “Let me and Jamal (Murray) play the whole side of the floor and we’ll get the interpretation right.” Coach Jokic did a great job tonight.
The Nuggets handled Jokic’s foul problems and early scoring problems. They absorbed Lakers shots on goal, calmed the home crowd at Crypto.com Arena and limited the effectiveness of LA stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Less than a week ago, it wasn’t out of the question that the Lakers could emerge from the No. 7 and win the Western Conference.
That prospect has dwindled to a tiny percentage as the Nuggets led 3-0 in Saturday’s West Finals after a 119-108 win. Denver is one win away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
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Whether they win game four in Los Angeles or at home in Denver, the outcome is inevitable. No NBA team has won a series from a 3-0 deficit, and Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn’t content with a split on the street.
“We talked after Game 2 in Denver about coming here and making this a business trip, like trying to come here and play two games and not just one,” he said.
Yes, it’s LeBron, so anything is possible, but the Nuggets are just the superior team, and it’s not close.
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The two Denver stars (Murray and Jokic) are better than the two Los Angeles stars (James and Davis), and the Nuggets’ roleplayers are better than their Lakers counterparts. It will be played over three games. These aren’t random wins that could go either way. Denver makes plays while Los Angeles doesn’t.
The Lakers have few answers for Murray and Jokic, at least not the kind of substantive answers that will result in a win.
Murray followed his 37-point performance in Game 2 with 37 points in Game 3, including 17 in the first quarter and 30 in the first half.
“Once he gets going it’s pretty hard to knock him out,” James said, adding: “Jamal is one of those guys in our league who, if you lose – 20 in a quarter or 30 in a half, and he did that tonight.
“So everyone in our league knows that, especially when he goes in and jumps and shoots the 3-ball, shoots from middle distance and puts up smaller guards. He can score on all three levels of the game.”
While Jokic struggled on offense for three quarters and struggled with foul problems, Murray and his teammates kept the Nuggets in position for a shot at the win once Jokic returned in the final quarter.
Denver reserve Bruce Brown had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. “Bruce Brown has been incredible for us. That guy, what an amazing performance,” Malone said.
Caldwell-Pope, who won a title with the Lakers in 2020, had 17 points, including 12 in the third game when Jokic sat out for foul problems and Murray briefly lost his scoring mojo. Michael Porter Jr. had 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
“It was the supporting cast that did this timely recording that allowed them to sort of come out on top,” James said.
It’s a relentless attack from the nuggets, who are better when it counts. They had 30 assists and only five turnovers. Basketball had open shooters, and Denver shot 50% from the field and 41.5% from threes against one of the best defenses in the league.
The Murray-Jokic bookends overpowered the Lakers. Jokic’s suggestion that he and Murray analyze the Lakers worked. He went into the fourth quarter with nine points and finished the quarter with 24.
“You can throw whatever defense you want at him,” Malone said. “His IQ just went through the roof. He’ll figure out what you do and how he can play his game, but now he can make those around him better too, which I think ultimately makes him the great player.” He is. He cheers up everyone around him every night.”
Jokic also set the record straight. “I don’t want to be a coach. I think this is easily the worst job on the planet.”
The Lakers are looking for answers.
They have the nuggets.
There is at least one game left. But the series is over.