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The Denver Nuggets are one win away from their first-ever NBA Finals appearance and are back on the court to face the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals Monday.
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The Lakers squandered another opportunity and the Nuggets seized another win to bring the series to 3-0 in favor of the mountainous visitors. The Lakers had their chances to pull ahead and put separation between themselves and the Nuggets and were gifted opportunities to win in the fourth quarter, but they passed them all up with lethargy and a lack of interest and ended up falling.
Nuggets’ guard Jamal Murray started the game off red-hot, continuing the blistering shot-making he delivered at the end of Game Two. Nikola Jokic did not have a strong game until the fourth quarter and it was set up for the Lakers to make a comeback, but their ill-advised shot selection, questionable rotations, and unwillingness to dig deep allowed Denver to stay in the driver’s seat.
The Lakers are now in extremely scary times. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series, and both D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt, who were starters for most of their time in LA, have become essentially unplayable. Mo Bamba is supposed to be available for Game Four, but the Nuggets are clicking on all cylinders and are certainly in the stronger position even regardless of the series standings.
Murray posted his second-straight game of 37 points (15-29 FG), while Jokic had 24 points, eight assists, and six rebounds. The Nuggets’ supporting cast, however, was the most impressive unit. Michael Porter Jr. finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and a career-high six assists, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope poured in 17 points (4-7 3PT), and Bruce Brown put up 15 points, five rebounds, and five steals off the bench.
On the other side, Anthony Davis led the way with 28 points and 18 rebounds but was somehow relatively quiet once again. Austin Reaves appeared the Lakers’ best player with 23 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, but was stuck on the bench for crucial moments. LeBron James had the best plus/minus of the starters but disappointed in the fourth quarter yet again en route to 23 points, 12 assists, and seven rebounds.
Russell made his first shot of the game but went on to finish with just three points (1-8 FG, 1-6 3PT) in 20 minutes and is often the victim of Denver hunting him in the pick-and-roll. Darvin Ham is reportedly unsure of benching him because he doesn’t want to lose him mentally for the rest of the postseason, but he also can’t keep playing him if this is the production he’s going to give. Troy Brown Jr. has not played real minutes in this series but could be on his way back.
The Lakers need to win four games in a row to miraculously make it out of this series—LeBron said that it all starts with winning one, which starts with getting a good start. This Lakers team has not looked willing to put up a true fight ever since it failed to come back in Game One and needs to come out of the gates hot to stay in the fight mentally.
Ham’s rotations are also going to be a situation to monitor. There’s nothing for him to lose at this point, so with Bamba and Brown Jr. potentially in line to return, Rui Hachimura may also move into the starting lineup in place of Russell. Austin Reaves may also be deployed as “the guy” in different situations and even when LeBron and Davis are on the court since he has looked the most effective perimeter player.
Denver just needs to keep doing more of the same. Their two-man game with Murray and Jokic is close to unguardable, and their three-point shooters seem to always be open. The Nuggets have also exploited the Lakers’ terrible transition defense while showing extra attention to their own which has made it much easier for them to go on runs.
The Lakers will have decided if they are willing to do what it takes to win before the game starts. It’s very evident watching this team’s games whether or not they are locked in or not, and Ham, despite showing promising signs in his first year as head coach, will not have anything to say to motivate someone as experienced as LeBron. LA needs to start hot to have a real chance of winning.
The Nuggets have not had to suffer through a Murray “off-night” which has helped them take a commanding 3-0 lead. But even if that infamous night strikes, their teamwork, and willingness to work for one another has given them a firm advantage. Their bench production is also outperforming that of the Lakers’, not because the latter has been bad, but because LA’s bench players are basically filling in the holes left by the starters.
Picking this game is tricky. All signs point to Denver, but if the Lakers have any sense of pride, they will refuse to get swept in their home building. At the same time, they look like they have already given up and have proven to be the mentally weaker of the two teams.
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