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The Los Angeles Lakers are hosting the Denver Nuggets in Game Three of the Western Conference Finals Saturday trailing 2-0 in the series and coming off of a devastating loss.
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The Lakers used the lessons they learned in the Game One loss to come out strong and take a five-point lead over Denver heading into halftime despite LeBron James and Anthony Davis getting off to slow starts. Their team defense and rebounding were much better, and the offense was consistent in getting to the free-throw line and collapsing the defense.
Jamal Murray was nonexistent in the first half, and Nikola Jokic was Denver’s only source of half-court offense. They were able to hang close in the first half and again in the third quarter because of how efficient their transition offense was, but it still seemed as if the Lakers’ adjustments were going to see them over the line.
Everything changed in the fourth quarter when Murray went nuclear hot and both LeBron and Davis put up a number of ill-advised, poorly-timed three-pointers (all but one missed). They blew a three-point lead heading into the fourth and were down 12 with a few minutes left before putting together a run that had no hope of materializing in anything. The Nuggets stayed perfect at home and are now two wins away from their first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
Murray led the game with 37 points and made 6-14 threes which was especially impressive given how poor he was in the first three quarters (he played the entire second half). Jokic became the first player to post four straight 20-point triple-doubles and went for 23 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. Michael Porter Jr. rounded it out with 16 points and seven rebounds.
LeBron (22 points, 0-6 3PT, 10 assists, nine rebounds) and Austin Reaves (22 points, 5-9 3PT) led LA in scoring, although the latter was clearly the team’s best player in the game and finished with a +13 plus/minus. Davis went for 18 points (4-15 FG), 14 rebounds, and four blocks, and Rui Hachimura was excellent off the bench yet again with 21 points (8-10 FG). His great play and D’Angelo Russell’s series-worst -41 in two games make a lineup change very possible.
The Lakers won the free-throw battle with 26 attempts to Denver’s 18, several of which came in the final moments when the Lakers were intentionally fouling. Neither team shot the three ball well (until Murray’s eruption), and the turnover and rebounding battles were fairly even. That’s two golden opportunities the Lakers have now passed up to steal home court, and their backs are square against the wall.
The Lakers are heading back to what has been a safe haven for them in the playoffs, although this is the first time they have not won on the road in the opening gambit of the series. It’s no secret that they’re going to need LeBron to play much better and be more selective with his shots, and for Davis to be more locked in on the offensive end.
Denver coach Michael Malone has been quite boisterous at the microphone lately and is giving LA all of the bulletin board material it needs—but he has also found a way to keep his team motivated and in the position of the hunters versus the hunted despite being the number-one seed. To his credit, it has worked exactly as intended thus far, and Denver now smells blood in the water.
It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Troy Brown Jr. reinserted into the lineup and in place of Jarred Vanderbilt’s usual minutes to offer defensive versatility and a more respectable offensive threat. They also need to seriously consider demoting Russell to the bench or even removing him from the rotation since he has been horrible on defense in the series.
The Lakers need to stick with a steady diet of rack attacks and tough defense. They were in full control of the game when their rhythm was disjointed and they were getting to the charity stripe with ease. They also need Davis to follow his pattern of great game/awful game and turn up with at least 25 points.
The Nuggets continue to impress in these playoffs. Their defense was totally absent in Game One, but it came back in full force in Game Two. Their versatility in ways to attack the hoop and also the number of players that can heavily influence the game makes them a nightmare, and this team-first approach is what has put them two games away from competing for a championship.
The Lakers absolutely need to win Game Three if they want any hope of advancing to the next round. They’re heading home where they are undefeated and will be angered by their late-game collapse and should come out with a decisive win.
But it just might be the last time we pick them in this series—it all depends on what plays out Saturday.
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