Sunday, September 24 2023

Nikola Jokic took a step back, but the rest of the Denver Nuggets stepped up. 

And as a result, the Nuggets are one win away from going to their first NBA Finals.

With four players other than their two-time MVP dishing out multiple assists, five of his teammates grabbing multiple rebounds, and four of them producing double-digit points, Denver now holds a commanding 3-0 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers in their Western Conference finals series. Another win would earn the Denver franchise its first ever playoff sweep.

The home crowd was stunned into silence for most of the first half thanks largely to point guard Jamal Murray, who picked up right where he left off in closing the Nuggets’ Game 2 victory with 23 fourth-quarter points. Murray had 30 of his game-high 37 points in the first half on Saturday. 

Meanwhile, Jokic — for the first time in these playoffs — reverted to the passive postseason demeanor that had some previously questioning if he really merited consecutive MVP awards. He missed six of his first eight shots, earned zero free throws and had two rebounds in 22 first-half minutes. Three first-half fouls were part of the problem, but he seemed content to let his supporting cast do the heavy lifting. 

Jokic finished with 24 points, eight assists and six rebounds, easily his least productive performance this postseason. He did pick it up in the fourth quarter, scoring 15 of his points then, but it was largely because the Lakers were so frantic about stopping Murray they were content to guard Jokic one-on-one with 6-foot-8 power forward Rui Hachimura. It’s hard to credit him as clutch after missing three of four free throws in the final minutes.

Denver still walked out of Arena with the 119-108 win because Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell Pope took up the slack. 


The most important stretch of the game came after Jokic picked up his fourth foul with 7:24 left in the third quarter. Defensive specialist Brown, who subbed in for Jokic, then picked up his fourth foul less than 90 seconds later. The Nuggets led 68-63 when Jokic went to the bench. They played the rest of the period without him and still managed to take a two-point lead into the fourth quarter.  

“I believe in my guys,” Jokic said. “KCP stepped up big time, Bruce Brown had an amazing game, Mike had an amazing game. I didn’t doubt my teammates even a little bit.”

LeBron James attributed the difference in the series overall to them.

“I think it’s been their supporting cast that has hit those timely shots that has given them an edge,” he said.

An edge that has turned into a 3-0 avalanche.

Stat to know: The Lakers outscored the Nuggets in the paint, 52-38, but the Nuggets overcame that by winning the 3-point battle by an even bigger margin, 51-30, with crisp 41% (17-of-41) shooting.

Play of the game: With 5:35 left, the Lakers forced Murray into a mid-range airball with the shot clock about to expire, but Brown out-jumped Austin Reaves and Anthony Davis for the tip-in, giving the Nuggets a 10-point lead and a clear punch to the Lakers’ collective gut.

Up next for the Nuggets: As long as they continue to take care of the ball and win the battle for fast break points, it’s hard to see where the Lakers can find an advantage. They shot 50% overall, had 30 assists and only five turnovers (!). They are the better shooting team, especially from long range, and the Lakers’ vaunted defense hasn’t had much impact.

Up next for the Lakers: Coach Darvin Ham has to sort through his role players and see if he can find some capable of impacting the outcome. Jarred Vanderbilt started, was assigned Murray, and finished with two points and a plus-minus of -10. D’Angelo Russell also started and was 1-for-8 for three points. 

Quote of the night: Murray, asked what it meant to be one win away from winning the series: “Five more to go.”

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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