Nuggets claim Game 3 over Lakers
Denver's fearless 23-year-old, Jamal Murray, saw his team's lead slipping away. A 20-point lead Tuesday night had been trimmed to three with five minutes to play.
So Murray made a smooth three-pointer from just behind the arc. On the next possession, he found teammate Paul Millsap, the man who'd never defeated LeBron James in a playoff game, inside for a dunk. Then he punctuated a 10-1 Nuggets run with a deep three-pointer.
Murray went backward in a semi-dance, knowing he'd helped secure his team's first win in the Western Conference finals.
The Los Angeles Lakers dropped Game 3 of the series 114-106 and lead it two games to one, despite 30 points and a triple-double from James, and 27 points from Anthony Davis. Murray finished the game in Orlando, Florida, with 28 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.
"They played better than us, more aggressive than us through three quarters, 36 minutes," James said. "We had 16 turnovers for 25 points and put them to the line 29 times. It's not going to be winning ingredients for us if we continue to do that and we knew that, even after Game 2, we talked about that, trying to assure that. Got to be better than that Game 4."
Said Rajon Rondo, who finished with eight assists, three steals, nine points and four turnovers: "We had a lot of wide-open shots that we didn't make tonight. We didn't shoot well from the free-throw line and turned the ball over. Those three things, we can't get a break with wins and losses. Tonight, we took a L and we deserved it."
Denver's fight and resilience was not unexpected for the Lakers. Coach Frank Vogel was clear before the game that his team knew it escaped with a game they very well could have lost Sunday night.
"Our guys are well aware that we dodged a bullet," Vogel said before Game 3.
On Tuesday, Denver stayed competitive in the first quarter behind Nikola Jokic who scored 11 points on five-for-seven first-quarter shooting and grabbed four rebounds. The Nuggets led by two heading into the second quarter 29-27.
Without Jokic, to start the second quarter, the Lakers fell victim to a 17-2 Nuggets run. At one point in the period, Denver led by 18 points. Although the Lakers trimmed the lead to 10 points by halftime, they trailed in rebounding 23-11 after grabbing only four in the second quarter.
"Have to do a better job on the glass, personally," said Davis, who didn't have a rebound in the first three quarters. "I can't have two rebounds for an entire game. So, I might be better in that aspect, but unacceptable. I mean, there's not really much I can say. I just have to do better."
The Lakers, who had lost only two games in the playoffs, needed a big rally after the break.
To that end, the Lakers continued their run in the third quarter, cutting the lead to five on two quick shots by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Soon afterward, Nuggets forward Jerami Grant stole the ball and raced down the court with Davis on his left and James on his right. Davis swatted at him before he rose for a shot, but Grant scored anyway, to give the Nuggets a 71-59 lead.
James countered by scoring on three straight possessions, one shot immediately following his first block of the game.
This might have been a moment when James helped the Lakers regain control of the game, but Denver was ready to push back. Although James got the Lakers within nine, that was the last time in the third quarter that their deficit was in single digits. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Nuggets led by 18.
Grant scored 12 points in the third quarter, which earned him double teams in the fourth.
The Denver lead was 97-77 with 10:36 left in the game.
That's when the Lakers decided to get serious.
"They just kind of picked up their aggressiveness," Murray said.
They put together a 19-2 run to cut Denver's advantage to three. It was punctuated by six Denver turnovers, including steals by Rondo on back-to-back plays.
Defense got the Lakers back into the game. With four minutes to go, the Nuggets had scored only nine points in the fourth quarter.
However, the young Nuggets withstood this run as well. After pulling within three, the Lakers couldn't score for nearly two full minutes, with James, Kuzma and Rondo missing from the field, while Murray was making things happen for the Nuggets.
"When you dig yourself a hole like that," James said, "every shot that they make and every shot that we miss feels like the game is collapsing."
Now the Lakers head into Game 4, up 2-1 against the only team in NBA history to have recovered from 3-1 deficits not once, but twice, in the same playoffs.