LOS ANGELES — Midway through the 3rd quarter of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, the Lakers’ defense was chasing Bruce Brown, who caught a swing pass from Michael Porter Jr. in the right corner and swished an uncontested 3-pointer.
As he returned to running back, Brown hit a “freeze” celebration — one that united the Lakers’ locker room during their improbable second-half rally — toward Los Angeles’ bench.
That’s how this Western Conference finals series has played out: Denver is one step ahead, Los Angeles is desperately trying to solve an intractable problem, and in the end, the Nuggets are making timely shots on command.
“That’s the game,” LeBron James said of Brown’s basket.
And that could be the streak — and the Lakers’ 2022-23 season.
Brown’s shot came midway through a 13-0 Denver run in the fourth quarter that sealed a 119-108 Game 3 victory at Crypto.com Arena on Saturday, giving the Nuggets a 3-0 series lead. No team in NBA history (0-149) has ever recovered from a 3-0 playoff series deficit. The Lakers haven’t even forced a Game 5 when trailing 3-0, going 0-8 in these situations. ESPN Stats & Info.
“The circumstances are what they are,” Lakers head coach Darwin Hamm said. “Difficult, but not impossible.”
The circumstances alone seem improbable, not just because of the unprecedented history, but because of the undeniable gap between these two teams in the first 144 minutes of this series.
Whatever the Lakers threw at the Nuggets, Denver found an answer. Double teams. Drop coverage. changes. James-Davis pick-and-roll. Defensively hounds Jamaal Murray. Predator Nikola Jokic
defensively. None of that swayed Denver for long.
Just like the Lakers cracked the Grizzlies and Warriors, the Nuggets cracked the Lakers. They are bigger, more physically imposing and relentless. Although all three games came down to the fourth quarter, Denver always looked poised and in control.
Jokic (27.0 points, 14.7 rebounds and 11.3 assists for the series) and Murray (35.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists) were the two best players in the series — something that never happened against the Lakers led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Team.
The Lakers’ past came back to haunt them on Saturday — just as it did in Game 2, to some degree. Los Angeles has made a significant effort over the past few months, playing with playoff-life intensity since the team was built at the Feb. 9 trade deadline. They overcame a 2-10 start and were 13th by late February. They won their first play-in tournament game, then dispatched Memphis and Golden State despite being road underdogs.
But their extraterrestrial efforts took their toll—physically and mentally—and it finally caught up with them. They were running on fumes in the second half of Game 2. And that continued in Game 3, their season basically over after their tank was empty.
One thing the Lakers can fall back on after their 0-2 deficit is that they are 7-0 in the postseason and have won nine straight games overall. But the Nuggets squandered that advantage, taking a double-digit lead early in the first quarter that they looked to hold throughout the game, only to briefly relinquish it early in the fourth quarter.
Rui Hachimura gives an honest assessment of the Nuggets’ edge over the Lakers.
“They’re bigger than us,” Hachimura said. “…we’re smaller than them, so they can shoot at us.”
Picking up where he left off in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Murray scored 17 points in the first quarter and 30 in the first half. At one point in the first quarter, Murray’s points nearly matched the Lakers’ points. He finally cooled off in the second half, scoring seven points on 2-for-9 shooting, but his play quieted the crowd at Crypto.com Arena, which was excited to make its first conference finals appearance since 2010.
Jared Vanderbilt and Dennis Schroeder tried to press and mimic Murray’s moves, but he cooked them both.
“Dennis and Vanto, they tried, but he’s a hell of a player,” Hamm said. “Once he’s rolling, it doesn’t matter who’s in front of him.”
Jokic didn’t score until late in the second quarter, battling foul trouble and the Lakers crowding him in the paint, but he finished what Murray started. He scored 15 points in the fourth on 5-of-7 shooting, finishing with 24 points and eight assists.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (17 points, two steals), Porter (14 points, 10 rebounds, six assists) and Brown (15 points, five rebounds and five assists) made key plays as the Nuggets’ supporting cast rebounded. Second half and crunch time.
“I think it was just timely shots by their partners,” James said of the difference in the series. “… it’s allowed them to have some kind of edge.”
The same cannot be said for the Lakers.
Anthony Davis (28 points and 18 rebounds), James (23 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists) and Austin Reaves (23 points, seven rebounds and five assists) carried the offense, as they did during their postseason run. But other than Hachimura (13 points and six rebounds), there weren’t many significant contributions from role players.
D’Angelo Russell struggled for the third straight game, scoring three points on 1-for-8 shooting and being a clear defensive target for Denver’s offense. Through three games, Russell has scored 21 points on 8-of-27 shooting (2-of-14 on 3-point shooting) in the series. That’s nowhere near enough offensive production from a player who made more than $30 million.
The Lakers were outscored by 53 points in 79 minutes he played. The series has been a disaster for him everywhere, and it’s fair to question whether the upcoming free agent can step up as the team’s lead guard.
“Everything looks good,” Hamm said. “Everything looks good. He should be aggressive. All good looks. “
When asked what he needs to change in his approach to be more effective, aside from taking too many shots, Russell didn’t have an answer.
“For me?” Russell said. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t really. I don’t know. I’ll try to find out.
The starting lineup of Davis, James, Vanderbilt, Reaves and Russell just didn’t work. Denver didn’t guard Vanderbilt, and they won by targeting Russell defensively. The Lakers were minus-7 in the team’s 12 minutes of play in Game 3 — a deficit that held Los Angeles back early in both areas. The Lakers are down to six players who can play — and three of them are coming off the bench (Schroder, Hachimura and Lonnie Walker IV).
With Los Angeles trailing 3-0, this is no time for politics or sentiment. Both players should be moved to the bench. Vanderbilt at least offers reliable on-ball protection against Murray (at least compared to the alternatives). Russell has yet to contribute meaningfully on either end of the floor this series. Hachimura and Schroeder are too smart to replace them, though the Lakers won Game 3 with Walker IV and Reaves, who is more than capable of handling point-guard duties.
Fixing the starting line-up again later in the series could be a sticking point. But Hamm made two costly miscalculations in this series — starting a three-guard lineup (Reaves, Russell and Schroder) in Game 1 and maintaining the same starting lineup for Game 3 (and the second half of Game 3).
After that, neither Laker could point to reason for hope — an adjustment, a glimmer of positivity from Game 3 — that technically the series wasn’t over and they still had a home game.
James, who has twice come from down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and 2-0 in the conference finals, is adamant his team’s hopes of pulling off the impossible are still strong.
“I mean, it should be,” James said. “I believe. I can’t speak for them right now because I don’t know what’s going through their minds right now. But I still do.
James shared his message postgame to his teammates, many of whom have never been deep into the playoffs.
“Got to get one,” James said of his comeback strategy. “One at a time. Just focus on Game 4 and that’s all you can really think about.
The Lakers will hold a film session on Sunday, hoping to find a way to slow down Denver’s unstoppable offense. They are trying to avoid the fate of 91 of the 149 teams in their position: getting swept. Only three teams in NBA history have forced a Game 7 after trailing 3-0 in a series.
Los Angeles has already pulled off the unthinkable, becoming the first team to go eight games under .500 at any point in the season and the second No. 1 seed to advance to the conference finals. It is also the 7th team. Trying to come up with a chance to keep their season alive in Game 4 on Monday.
“Our backs have been against the wall the last couple of months, probably more than that since the trade deadline,” Reaves said. “Swinging, throwing punches and fighting to get this opportunity. … Come out on Monday and go home or fight another day. With the group of guys we’ve got, I know what that answer will be.
(Nikola Jokic and Lakers Photo: Harry Howe/Getty Images)