LOS ANGELES—Nikola Jokic was far from his usual dominant self while mired in foul trouble, and Jamal Murray cooled off after his scorching first half.
The Denver Nuggets’ big early lead disappeared entirely in the fourth quarter of Game 3, and the Lakers’ home crowd was in a frenzy.
The Nuggets weathered every setback and calmly, methodically took control with a poise worthy of champions.
With one more victory, they’ll finally get the chance to play for their first rings.
Murray scored 37 points, Jokic added 24 points and eight assists and the Nuggets rolled to a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals with a 119-108 victory over Los Angeles on Saturday night.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 12 of his 17 points in the second half against his former team for the top-seeded Nuggets, who have never been this close to the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals in 47 years in the league.
Denver is making its fifth straight playoff appearance, and the ultimate stage is now just one win away.
“I learn a lot about this team every time we play,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We have that dog mentality where no matter if we’re up, down, we’re going to continue to fight and play our game, and do it at a high level. We’re going to continue to do that for the rest of these games.”
Denver blew a 14-point lead in Game 3, but made a decisive 13-0 run in the fourth quarter to snap the Lakers’ nine-game home winning streak since March 26, including seven straight victories since the regular season ended.
“This group is capable of doing great things, and they believe,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “Belief is a very powerful thing.”
No team has rallied from a 3-0 playoff series deficit in NBA history. Game 4 is Monday night in Los Angeles.
“They’re going to do everything in their power to come back and fight on their home floor,” Murray said. “We know it’s coming, and we’ve just got to stay locked in and know we can do it.”
Anthony Davis had 28 points and 18 rebounds for the seventh-seeded Lakers, who hadn’t lost three straight games since early February. Los Angeles’ prolonged, desperate surge ever since the trade deadline has finally run out of steam against the powerhouse Nuggets, who have won five consecutive playoff games.
“They’ve been at the top of the food chain for a reason, and have a plethora of guys that can hurt you, as was on full display tonight,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “But you know, circumstances are what they are. Difficult, but not impossible.”
LeBron James had 23 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds for Los Angeles, hitting three 3-pointers after starting the series 0 for 13 from distance. Austin Reaves added 23 points and seven rebounds, but Rui Hachimura was the only other Lakers scorer to crack double figures with 13 points.
“Our backs have been against the wall (for) probably about the last two months, maybe more than that since the trade deadline,” Reaves said. “Swinging, throwing punches to fight to get to this opportunity. … We can either come out Monday and go home, or we can fight for another day. And with the group of guys that we’ve got, I know what that answer will be.”
Jokic’s streak of four consecutive triple-doubles ended in a fairly quiet game for the two-time MVP, who got his fourth foul in the third quarter. But Murray scored 17 points in a dynamic first quarter following his 23-point fourth quarter two nights ago, and he had 30 points by halftime of Game 3.
Bruce Brown scored 15 points and hit a key 3-pointer down the stretch for the Nuggets before Jokic all but iced it on a 3-pointer with 3:17 to play.
The Lakers’ passionate fans turned out in force for the 17-time champion franchise’s first conference finals games at home since 2010. Los Angeles tried desperately to get back in the series, with James playing 43 minutes after spraining his left ankle in Game 2 on top of his already sore right foot.
But the Nuggets’ flight to the coast didn’t cool off Murray in the slightest: After lighting up the Lakers to close Game 2, the Canadian guard made his first five shots in Game 3 and poured in 17 points in the first quarter—even while Jokic went scoreless for the second straight quarter.
Murray’s fourth 3-pointer of the night made him 11 of 13 from the field for 26 points midway through the second quarter, scoring more than half of Denver’s points at an unbelievable pace. Reaves and Davis kept the Lakers in it, with Reaves racking up 15 points, three assists and three rebounds in the second quarter alone.
Hachimura’s three-pointer early in the fourth gave the Lakers their first lead since the opening minutes, but the Nuggets took charge again in a rally highlighted by Brown’s 3-pointer with 7:02 to play, after which he taunted the Lakers’ bench with Los Angeles’ own “Freeze” 3-point celebration.
D’Angelo Russell had another rough game for the Lakers, scoring three points on 1-of-8 shooting in 20 minutes. Russell was the Lakers’ biggest addition in their trade deadline transformation, but the point guard has just 21 points in this three-game series.
Image credits: AP