LOS ANGELES — There comes a point in every playoff series when both teams come to an understanding.
The understanding of which team is best, and which team will win the series.
For the Lakers, both realizations crystallized in Game 4 of previous series — against Memphis, when the Grizzlies choked on their own arrogance and blew an overtime opportunity, and against Golden State, when the champs couldn’t muster their usual moxie to win a road game that was right there for the taking.
In the Western Conference finals, there they were, throwing everything they could at the Denver Nuggets in the third quarter. They had Nikola Jokić in foul trouble during an off night, Anthony Davis was doing work inside, and LeBron James finally ended his national nightmare by hitting back-to-back triples.
Yet after an exhausting effort, they still trailed by 1 and the Nuggets were fresh, steady stalking like black cats.
That black cat is now one game away from the NBA Finals after a 119-108 Game 3 win at Crypto.com Arena on Saturday night to take a 3-0 lead. In NBA history, no team has ever come from such a deficit to win a series.
And the Nuggets seemed to know that coming in, still showing a respectful fear of the Lakers despite the control they displayed in the first two games.
But the fear wasn’t deference, and Jamal Murray made sure he didn’t live in a “what have you done for me lately” world by dropping a clean 30 on the Lakers in the first half, following up his 23-point fourth quarter showing from Game 2.
He led the Nuggets with 37 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, while Jokic grinded his way to 24 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, with most of his damage coming in the fourth when they held off a late charge.
They expected an early blow from the Lakers, who were undefeated at home in these playoffs, but instead they delivered what appears to be the knockout punch — and had the Lakers playing from behind all evening.
“I think the mindset is you have to go out there and take it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "Up 3-0, what's the natural inclination? Take a deep breath, relax — and that's when you get yourself into trouble.”
Malone is an edgy fellow, and that edge has filtered to his players. The Nuggets have been the best team in the West since Christmas Day, and it’s funny how time flies when you’re paying attention to other teams in the conference.
The Warriors were always respected as champions and the belief was it would be hard to dispatch a fully healthy squad in a seven-game series. The Clippers are always great in theory until the injuries hit. The Phoenix Suns were tantalizing when acquiring Kevin Durant, no longer tethered to Kyrie Irving. And the Lakers garnered a lot of attention following their seismic trade deadline moves that propelled them to this point.
Yet, the Nuggets chugged along at the top of the standings, a healthy bunch who only needed each other to truly contend. Last year, they went 25-16 on the road — a 50-win pace.
“We're No. 1 in the West for a reason,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “I believed it from the jump that we could win a championship. That was everybody's mindset. We knew how we could jell together and play together.”
So when Jokić was in foul trouble early, Murray had no problem stepping into a lead role, with Michael Porter Jr. again taking advantage of limited opportunities to be a legit threat while playing with full concentration on the other end.
“And I think the word you used is very appropriate: I did see poise tonight,” Malone said. “Foul trouble. Nikola going out. There wasn't a panic. It was, 'OK, he's out, that means somebody else has to step up.' I think that's something our team has done time and time again. I know it's cliche, but that next-man-up mentality has really served us well over the years.”
The next man up can only take teams so far, and the stars have to put finishing touches on games in May. Jokic and Murray have the best two-man game in the league, and the Lakers were purely perplexed in trying to defend it.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham is known for trying a little of everything, and he even put James on Murray again for stretches. Considering James’ age, it felt like a last resort — or last rites.
In the Nuggets' huddle during some critical moments, it was apparently Jokić who called for them to run the offense on the right side.
“We were up at the time, and we just wanted to not rush anything,” Murray said. “Jokić did a good job of clearly in English speaking to the team in the huddle about where everybody should be, and like I said, we did a good job executing.”
The Lakers actually held a 94-93 lead with seven minutes remaining, but it didn’t feel like they had a grip on the game. The Nuggets have played every game this playoff with the appropriate professionalism, and it showed they viewed Game 3 as an opportunity.
Even Caldwell-Pope, who’s not the most vocal player, got on teammate Christian Braun for mixing up a defensive coverage that resulted in an Austin Reaves triple. There’s an understanding, a maturity.
So before the Lakers could blink, that lead disappeared. Jeff Green, Bruce Brown and Murray tripled in the next 90 seconds and all optimism for the game, the series and the season went up in smoke. The Nuggets could’ve lost a game, and they’re capable of losing games the rest of the way. But what they’ve shown is they won’t beat themselves — with 30 assists to just 5 turnovers and an increased emphasis on defensive attention many felt would spell their doom this spring.
Could James have done it and pulled out a victory? Perhaps an earlier iteration, but this version plays in spurts. He scored 23 with 12 assists and 7 rebounds. James shot 3-of-9 from 3-point range—which is an improvement from his recent numbers but probably too many attempts for the Lakers’ liking.
The Nuggets kept him out of the paint and prevented Davis from doing maximum damage. Aaron Gordon and Porter Jr. have done thankless work this series, along with the underrated Brown.
The Lakers are still looking for answers, while the Nuggets are showing they’re the better team —any time, any place — and 48 minutes away from getting behind that elusive velvet rope to qualify for their first ever NBA Finals.