LOS ANGELES − Denver Nuggets two-time MVP Nikola Jokic struggled offensively for three quarters and picked up his fourth foul with 7:24 left in the third quarter. The Nuggets maintained a slim lead, and when Jokic got set to return at the start of the fourth quarter, he went to Denver coach Michael Malone with an offensive suggestion.
“The end of the game, him and Jamal (Murray) were playing a two-man game. 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 (Murray) play whole side of the floor, and we’ll make the right reads.’ Coach Jokic did a great job tonight.”
The Nuggets managed Jokic’s foul trouble and early scoring issues. They absorbed the Lakers’ scoring bursts, quieted the home crowd at Crypto.com Arena and limited the effectiveness of L.A. stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Less than a week ago, it wasn’t out of the question to think the Lakers could emerge from the No. 7 seed and win the Western Conference.
That prospect has dwindled to an infinitesimal percentage with the Nuggets up 3-0 in the West finals following a 119-108 victory Saturday. Denver is one victory away from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Whether they win the fourth game in Los Angeles or back home in Denver, the outcome is inevitable. No NBA team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series, and Denver’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn’t content with a road split.
“We talked about it after Game 2 in Denver, how we wanted to come here and make this a business trip as far as like trying to come in here and get two games and not just one,” he said.
Yes, it is LeBron, so anything is possible, but the Nuggets are just the superior team, and it’s not close.
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Denver’s two stars (Murray and Jokic) are better than Los Angeles’ two stars (James and Davis), and the Nuggets role players are better than their Lakers counterparts. It’s played out over three games. These aren’t fluke victories that could go either way. Denver makes plays while Los Angeles does not.
The Lakers have found few answers for Murray and Jokic, at least not the kind of substantial answers that lead to a victory.
Murray followed his 37-point Game 2 performance with 37 points in Game 3, including 17 in the first quarter and 30 in the first half.
“Once he gets going, it’s kind of hard to turn him off,” James said, adding, “Jamal is one of those guys in our league that if you — he’ll run off 20 in a quarter or 30 in a half, and that’s what he did tonight.
“So everyone in our league knows that, especially when he gets going and he gets to bouncing and shooting the 3-ball, shooting the mid-range, posting up smaller guards. He can score at all three levels of the game.”
With Jokic struggling offensively and in foul trouble through three quarters, Murray and his teammates kept the Nuggets in position to have a chance at victory once Jokic returned for the final quarter.
Denver reserve Bruce Brown had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists. “Bruce Brown has been unbelievable for us. That guy, what a great pickup,” Malone said.
Caldwell-Pope, who won a title with the Lakers in 2020, scored 17 points, including 12 in the third when Jokic had to sit because of foul trouble and Murray briefly lost his scoring mojo. Michael Porter Jr. had 14 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
“It’s been the supporting cast that have kind of made those timely shots that’s allowed them to kind of have the edge,” James said.
It’s a relentless attack from the Nuggets, who are better when it matters. They had 30 assists and just five turnovers. The basketball found open shooters, and Denver shot 50% from the field and 41.5% on 3s against one of the best defenses in the league.
The Murray-Jokic bookends overwhelmed the Lakers. Jokic’s suggestion to let him and Murray dissect the Lakers worked. He entered the fourth quarter with nine points and finished with 24.
“You can throw whatever defense you want at him,” Malone said. “His IQ is just through the roof. He’s going to figure out what you’re doing and how he can play his game, but also now he can make those around him better, which is what I think ultimately makes him the great player that he is. He uplifts everyone around him on a nightly basis.”
Jokic set the record straight, too. “I don’t want to be a coach. I think that’s the worst job on the planet, for sure.”
The Lakers are searching for answers.
The Nuggets have them.
There’s at least one game left. But the series is over.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers are in trouble with superior Nuggets up 3-0 in West finals
Source: Yahoo Sports