Jamal Murray got things going early for Denver with 30 points in the first half and then Nikola Jokic finished the job with a strong second half of his own to put the Nuggets one win away from a Western Conference title. The Denver Nuggets are one win away from a berth in the NBA Finals after taking down the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of their best-of-seven series with a 119-108 win on Saturday night in L.A.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves all scored 20+ points for the Lakers in the loss but, in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep pace with Denver and now Los Angeles will have to do something that has never been done before in NBA history if they want to reach the finals by winning four games in a row. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Game 3:
There often comes a time, usually late in a playoff series, when one team is struck with the startling realization that there is absolutely nothing they can do to stop another team’s star player. This typically comes after five or six games worth of adjustments. But by the first half of Game 3, the Lakers had already tried everything. They had no answer for Jamal Murray whatsoever.
They started the game with their typical lineup, and while Jarred Vanderbilt got a nominal matchup on Murray, Denver would just engineer switches to get him matched up against D’Angelo Russell. Russell stood no chance against Murray off the dribble, and Murray roasted him for 15 very quick points early in the first quarter. The Lakers can’t afford to keep Vanderbilt in the game offensively much longer than that, so they turned to Dennis Schroder next.
Murray had an answer for that as well. He just took Schroder into the post and killed him with turnaround jumpers just like he did with Landry Shamet last round. The Lakers got so desperate in the second quarter that they even let LeBron James try his luck on Murray, but James couldn’t chase Murray around the court in Denver’s complex offense, so he managed to get loose for several 3-pointers.
This isn’t a matter of Darvin Ham missing some adjustment or having a player on his bench he’s not using. The Lakers are trying everything. They just have no answer anywhere on their roster for Murray’s combination of speed, strength and skill. Here’s something we can blame Darvin Ham for. He stuck with the starting lineup he’s used for most of the postseason. The five-man unit of James, Russell, Vanderbilt, Davis and Reaves got outscored by 11 points in 26 minutes across Games 1 and 2. Then it got outscored by six points in the first six minutes of the game on Saturday… and Ham went back to it to start the third quarter. Unsurprisingly, it was again outscored, this time by just a single point, but remember, Nikola Jokic missed a big chunk of that stretch due to foul trouble.
That group makes sense in theory. It has one defensive vulnerability (Russell) and one offensive vulnerability (Vanderbilt).
The group, as a whole, has been great since assembling in February. But Russell’s offensive combustion in this series coupled with Denver’s ability to wriggle Vanderbilt off of Murray has made it unplayable.
Only four Lakers have proven reliable on both ends of the floor in this series: James, Davis, Reaves and Rui Hachimura. Those four players have combined to score just under 82% of all Laker points in this matchup (276-of-337). They’ve all survived defensively. But the Lakers haven’t found a fifth player who works with that group, and they haven’t gotten much of anything out of anyone else. Perhaps there’s some alignment Ham hasn’t tried yet that could turn the players they’ve used into a workable group, but right now, the Lakers just look too thin to survive in this series without those four players all playing 40 or more minutes every night.
THE Surge Sinks Lakers
For the second time in three days the Lakers put themselves in position to win a game, but once again it was the Nuggets who were able to make the plays they needed to claim the victory. Behind a huge 4th quarter from Jamal Murray, Denver secured a 108-103 win to protect their home court and take a 2-0 series.
Murray was the story in this game and the driver of Denver’s offensive attack that led them to the win down the stretch. The Lakers entered that final frame with a three point lead, but Murray scored 23 of his game high 37 points in the 4th quarter, including several late-clock three pointers that not only added points to the scoreboard, but animated their home crowd to give them even more of a boost.
Murray added 10 rebounds and five assists for the game, a masterful performance after beginning the night 5-17 from the field — only to knock down six of his seven attempts in that fateful 4th quarter to lead his team to the victory.
The Nuggets also got another strong performance from Nikola Jokic, who tallied his second triple-double in as many games with 23 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. Jokic played his typical bruising game in the post, mostly working from the mid-range and in for his baskets by fighting for position then using his soft touch to score in and around the paint.
On the flip side, the Lakers star players weren’t able to find their respective rhythms as shot makers in this game.
Anthony Davis scored 18 points, but did most of his damage from the foul line where he knocked down nine of his 11 free throws, while knocking down five of his 17 shots from the field. Getting many of the same looks he got in Game 1, Davis simply couldn’t connect on the mid-range jumpers, runners, and hooks he got when working out of the post or when getting pocket passes in the pick-and-roll.