It was somewhat inevitable the Denver Nuggets would eventually snatch a victory away from the Los Angeles Lakers even after a heartbreaking loss put them in a 2-0 series deficit in the Western Conference Finals
After all, Denver has established itself as the comeback kings of the Orlando bubble, something the Utah Jazz and L.A. Clippers found out the tough way. The Nuggets were close to leveling things out in Game 2 and were only denied by Anthony Davis and his crunch-time brilliance. But the Nuggets’ moment finally came on Tuesday night.
Denver outgunned and out-rebounded L.A., dominating in key statistical areas. They registered 44 rebounds while giving up just 25, constraining Davis to just two boards. And they shot 38% from deep, sinking 11 3-pointers including the two crucial daggers Jamal Murray made late in the fourth to suck the remaining supply of hope out of the rallying Lakers.
”We feel like we should be up 2-1 right now, to be honest,” Murray said after Game 3 with a hint of hubris. The comment shows the Nuggets are regaining their swag and confidence, a lethal concoction that cost the Jazz and Clippers the season.
To avoid becoming another one of Denver’s comeback wonder stories, the Lakers need to shuffle things around and then exert dominance from the moment the ball goes up in Game 4.
Head coach Frank Vogel has proven he is capable of making adjustments that can turn the tide in the series. Against the Houston Rockets, it was small ball — Houston’s forte which L.A. beat them with.
Against Denver, however, small ball might not be the answer.
The Lakers grabbed 17 of their 25 rebounds in Game 3 with either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the floor. Yet, the former played a total of eight minutes and the latter logged 14.
Including Howard in the starting lineup — a change Vogel has been mulling over — and playing with more size for bigger chunks of the game may bring back L.A.’s dominance on the glass.
Howard’s toughness helps L.A. play a more physical game, improving the team’s rebounding and rim protection. He has also proven to be an effective counterweight to Nikola Jokic, throwing the Nuggets center off balance with his aggressiveness and taunts.
But Howard needs to stay disciplined for the remainder of the series as foul trouble continues keeping him out of the game.
However, improvements are needed from the entire Lakers team if they are to bounce back from the loss.
Rajon Rondo’s and Alex Caruso’s defense was the main initiator of the ferocious fourth-quarter run in Game 3. But prior to that, the collective performance of the two guards was on the Groundhog Day level rather than in the Braveheart category.
The Lakers duo finished the game shooting 5-for-17 and L.A. was outscored by 13 points with Rondo on the court and by six during Caruso’s rotation minutes despite their role in the late rally.
In addition, Rondo turned the ball over four times — and yet still trailed LeBron James, who had six turnovers; Davis added another three.
It has to be said Caruso played with an injured wrist for some part of the game. And Danny Green, whose night was similarly frustrating, had to power through a finger injury. Both guards are expected to play in Game 4.
Meanwhile, it took an elbow to the face for James to get his only two free throws of the night.
But all in all, the Lakers were sloppy, sluggish, and impatient, eliciting Vogel’s stinging but accurate assessment during a timeout: Denver wants the win more than us. And the head coach then called on his players to put up a “great fight” in Game 4.
It certainly is a tricky situation to be in for L.A, especially after six straight wins that can open the door for complacency. The Nuggets seemed to have gradually been stealing the momentum over the last six quarters of the series.
But the Lakers have been under pressure before; there is no need to panic just yet.
They are still leading in the series and have a very motivated three-time NBA champion on their roster who can make sure Vogel’s call to action is answered.
The Lakers have already beaten a dangerous rival at their own game this postseason and they might need to do just that now against the bubble’s comeback kings.
Swallow the tough loss, crave a revenge, and come back stronger.
Nuggets (1-2) vs. Lakers (2-1)
6:00 p.m. PT, Sep. 24, 2020
ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Florida
Radio: 710 AM ESPN LA
Projected Lakers starting lineup:
PG: LeBron James
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Danny Green
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Dwight Howard
Key Reserves: Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, JaVale McGee
Projected Nuggets starting lineup:
PG: Jamal Murray
SG: Garry Harris
SF: Jerami Grant
PF: Paul Millsap
C: Nikola Jokic
Key Reserves: Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Monte Morris
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