The Nuggets need one more victory to qualify for the NBA Finals.
The Denver Nuggets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of their best-of-seven series on Saturday night in Los Angeles, winning 119-108 to move one victory away from securing a spot in the NBA Finals. With 30 points in the first half, Jamal Murray got Denver off to a fast start. Nikola Jokic then put the finishing touches on things with a strong second half of his own, putting the Nuggets one victory away from winning the Western Conference.
Los Angeles will have to do something that has never been done in NBA history if they want to reach the finals by winning four straight games. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Austin Reaves all scored 20+ points for the Lakers in the defeat, but ultimately it wasn’t enough to keep pace with Denver. The following three lessons learned most from Game 3:
1. The Lakers have no answer for Jamal Murray
There frequently comes a point, usually late in a playoff series, when one team is startled to realize that there is nothing they can do to stop the star player of the opposing club. This usually happens after changes made over the course of five or six games. However, the Lakers had already tried everything by the start of Game 3. They had absolutely no response for Jamal Murray.
Jarred Vanderbilt had a modest matchup against Murray when they opened the game with their usual lineup, but Denver would simply plan swaps to put him up against D’Angelo Russell. Russell had little chance against Murray off the dribble, and early in the first quarter, Murray roasted him for 15 points in a flash. The Lakers couldn’t afford to let Vanderbilt continue to score offensively, so they went to Dennis Schroder next.
Murray also had a response for that. Just as he did with Landry Shamet in the previous round, he simply took Schroder into the post and destroyed him with turnaround jumpers. The Lakers became so desperate in the second quarter that they even let LeBron James to try his luck on Murray. However, Murray was able to escape James’ grasp and make a number of 3-pointers because James was unable to keep up with Murray in Denver’s intricate scheme.
It’s not a case of Darvin Ham making a mistake or having a bench guy he’s not employing. The Lakers are giving it their all. Simply put, they don’t have a player on their roster who can match Murray’s mix of strength, speed, and talent.
2. Down with the ship
Here’s something Darvin Ham is to blame for. He continued to deploy the same starting lineup from the postseason. In 26 minutes throughout Games 1 and 2, the five-man unit of James, Russell, Vanderbilt, Davis, and Reaves was outscored by 11 points. It lost the game on Saturday after being outscored by six points in the opening six minutes, but Ham came back to it to begin the third quarter. Naturally, it was outscored once more, this time by just one point, but keep in mind that Nikola Jokic missed a significant portion of that period due to foul trouble.
Theoretically, that group makes sense. Russell is a defensive weakness, and Vanderbilt is an offensive weakness. Since coming together in February, the gang has performed admirably as a whole. However, Denver’s ability to get Vanderbilt off of Murray and Russell’s offensive bonfire in this series have rendered it unplayable.
In this series, only James, Davis, Reaves, and Rui Hachimura of the Lakers have demonstrated consistency on both sides of the court. In this contest, those four players have accounted for slightly under 82% of all Laker points (276-of-337). By using defense, they have all lived. However, the Lakers haven’t discovered a fifth player that gels with that team, and they haven’t received much from anyone else either. The Lakers currently appear too thin to win this series without those four guys playing 40 or more minutes each night. However, there may be some alignment that Ham hasn’t yet explored that may make the players they’ve employed into a useful combination.
3. Are we entering a new phase for LeBron?
Consider a number of LeBron’s best postseason performances. The Celtics were destroyed by 45 points in 2012. His consecutive 40s in 2016 against the Warriors after Cleveland fell behind 3-1. the 80 total points he accrued while participating in both 2018 Game 7s. When James has his back to the wall, he performs at his very best. He is one of the NBA’s most difficult players to defeat. That explains why his Game 3 performance was so unexpected.
James made 8 of 19 shots for 23 points. His post-ups gave the Lakers a lot of effective offense, but the majority of it came from his passing. James was unable to step up when the Lakers needed a superstar to take control of the game. That might be the outcome of his untreated foot ailment. James was controlling games when the Lakers had him in December and January.
But it’s possible that LeBron’s career is about to enter a new stage. Perhaps he is no longer able to conjure up 40-point performances against elite opponents. We’ll have a better idea of James’ late-career persona throughout the course of the following year. We’re hoping he’s feeling better and can give us one last classic playoff run. However, with James in current form, the Lakers have little chance against the Nuggets. He appears truly mortal for the first time in twenty years.
Denver is one win away from the Finals.
For us in Los Angeles, that’ll do. In the Western Conference Finals, the Denver Nuggets will take a 3-0 lead. They are currently just one victory away from making their first NBA Finals appearance in team history.