LOS ANGELES — With a triad of methods to issue a third successive strike to the heart, the Denver Nuggets humbled Hollywood, turned Crypto.com Arena into a crypt and crushed the Lakers’ hopes once and for all.
Los Angeles isn’t officially done yet, but not even the NBA’s most celebrated franchise has pulled off what LeBron James and company must attempt now. In playoff history, teams to lead a series 3-0 have won the series 149 times out of 149.
“I’ve never been in a position like this,” Lakers forward Rui Hachimura said when asked how to avoid feeling discouraged by the heft of that history. “So I don’t know.”
“Right now, I can’t really give you anything (optimistic),” guard Austin Reaves said after a 119-108 Denver win Saturday night.
To take a 3-0 lead, the Nuggets awed L.A. with an orderly and comprehensive display of their three greatest strengths, one at a time. It left the Lakers with nothing to do except tip their caps.
First, Jamal Murray.
“Once he gets going, it’s kind of hard to turn him off,” James said.
He knew from recent experience. Murray’s 23-point fourth quarter in Game 2 snatched a win out of LeBron’s teeth. In Game 3, Murray propelled Denver to a narrow halftime lead with 30 points. He was on pace to deliver the fourth 60-point playoff game in NBA history, joining Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor and Donovan Mitchell (a game Murray remembers well).
“He’s one of those players, man,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “Once he starts to see them go in, it’s just, he catches fire, and he rolls them off pretty quickly.”
But Murray’s fire was extinguished after a 15-minute break. A new hero needed to take a turn.
Second was the Nuggets’ depth.
“They kept scoring,” said D’Angelo Russell, a Lakers role player who’s shooting 7 for 26 in this series.
With 7:24 remaining in the third quarter, Denver’s best player reached four fouls and sat the remainder of the frame. Denver’s second-best player, Murray, didn’t score a point in the next 7:24. Yet the Lakers only gained two points on the Nuggets during that time.
“I think it’s been the timely shots by their role players,” James said. “Obviously I think the KCPs and Michael Porter Jrs. and Bruce Browns — even Jeff (Green) hit a big-time timely shot today when we were kind of going on a run. I think it’s been the supporting cast that have kind of made those timely shots that allowed (Denver) to kind of have the edge.”
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope contributed seven points the rest of the third quarter. Porter scored six. Brown supplied four more. The Nuggets, subtracted of their star power, aggravated mighty Los Angeles regardless.
“I think all them guys were over 15 points,” Anthony Davis said. “They made some tough shots.”
Third, at last, Nikola Jokic.
“Once he came back,” Ham said, “he just did what he does.”
Jokic had been absent even when he was on the floor the first three quarters. He was disrupted every time he touched the ball in the paint, missing shots considered easy by his standards, if only his. Then, facing foul trouble in the fourth quarter, he carried the Nuggets across the finish line with 15 points on 5-for-5 shooting, two rebounds and two assists.
“They are just bigger than us,” Hachimura said. “… And of course Jokic, he’s a good passer. He just gets a lot of attention when he has the ball. So we just sometimes watch him and get back out, or the other side of the court is wide open.”
The apparent best player on the planet was a fitting final chapter of the Nuggets’ three-part disassembly of the Lakers, but the fact Jokic wasn’t even relevant for the first two chapters was equally telling. L.A. players were left reaching for motivation through “one game at a time” clichés late Saturday night. Their fate was nearly sealed.
“They’re a force,” Russell said. “Tough for us to stop.”
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